Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page
Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw
Lili Taylor as Paula Klaw
Jared Harris as John Willie
Norman Reedus as Billy Neal
Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager
Cara Seymour as Maxie
David Strathairn as Estes Kefauver
Austin Pendleton as Teacher
Dallas Roberts as Scotty
John Cullum as Preacher in Nashville
Victor Slezak as Preacher in Miami
Tara Subkoff as June
Kevin Carroll as Jerry Tibbs
Matt McGrath as Nervous Man
Directed by Mary Harron
Gretchen Mol gives a career-defining performance as the ’50s pin-up model whose story of redemption is almost inspirational in itself.
Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), the legendary pin-up model of the ’50s known for her racy photos and films, fights an inner battle with her own religious beliefs, while being dragged further and further into the seedy world of bondage and S&M.
The title of this new biodrama from Mary Harron (“American Psycho”) might be a bit of a misnomer, because famed ’50s pin-up model Bettie Page wasn’t really notorious, as much as she was mysterious. Like a 20th Century Mona Lisa, she had this way in front of the camera that made you wonder what she was thinking as she brandished a whip at a tethered beauty. Who knows what the guys turned on by Bettie’s sexy outfits and display of skin would think if they knew what this sweet churchgoing girl from Nashville was really thinking, but “The Notorious Bettie Page” does a pretty decent job trying to give you some idea.
As the movie begins, the first thing you notice besides the ’50s setting is that the film is in black and white. When David Strathairn pops up at the helm of a Senate hearing to take down the seedier side of the skin trade, you almost think that you’ve walked into the wrong movie, but it quickly becomes obvious that this movie isn’t about him, as much as the pretty woman waiting patiently outside the courtroom for her turn to speak.
After being introduced to Bettie in this odd fashion, we flashback to her early years, living as a teenager in Nashville. The unwanted attention she gets from her father is handled far more subtly than the disturbing encounter that Bettie has with a group of strange men that forces Bettie to want to get out of Tennessee as soon as possible. She ends up in New York where she meets a photographer who thinks she’ll make a great model. It doesn’t take long for this new profession to get dark and seedy pretty fast, as Bettie is dressed up in lingerie to be photographed by strangers. Despite her Christian upbringing, she seems game for anything, taking on her new occupation without the slightest bit of naivety. She soon finds herself as the star model of a husband and wife team of pornographers who specialize in “different” fetishes, but Bettie couldn’t be happier with her new lifestyle.
At times, the movie comes across as preachy, but it’s easy to ignore any faults due to Gretchen Mol’s marvelous performance. She’s every bit as beautiful and photogenic and free-spirited as Bettie Page herself, instilling the same innocence and sense of fun into every unabashed display of her fine body. Even during the seediest of S&M sequences, Mol acts like it’s playtime, instilling the scenes with the same naïve sexuality that made the real Bettie Page so popular.
Like with “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” Mary Harron has found a subject that allows her to explore an interesting topic, in this case the sexual repression of the ’50s vs. the burgeoning world of fetish and pornography. For most of the movie, you’ll wonder who’s in control and who’s being taken advantage of, because obviously, Bettie is loving every minute of it. When she finds herself at the mercies of a lecherous photographer, played by Jared Harris, instead of taking advantage of the situation, he queries her on what her God might think of her profession. While most of the movie retains the black and white look of a high school instructional film, the sudden switch to color for Bettie’s jaunts down to Miami aren’t nearly as jarring as you might think, because the transition seems so natural.
On the other hand, the Senate hearings, which play a large part of the last act, tend to get tedious as we hear testimony after testimony. Bettie ends up being sent home before she’s even given a chance to offer her two cents. The film’s ending is surprisingly inspirational as Bettie returns to a more spiritual way of life, accepting the fact that the celebrity she attained in her previous profession might get her recognized by men she’s preaching to.
The Bottom Line:
It’s hard to determine whether men or women will get more out of watching “The Notorious Bettie Page.” There’s certainly an inspirational message in Bettie’s story and her general attitude towards life which some women might appreciate, and if nothing else, it shows that men have been perverts for at least fifty years, but probably longer.
The Notorious Bettie Page opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.