Gretchen Mol in The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)


(director/writer: Mary Harron; screenwriter: Guinevere Turner; cinematographer: Mott Hupfel; editor: Tricia Cooke; music: Mark Suozzo; cast: Gretchen Mol (Bettie Page), Chris Bauer (Irving Klaw), Lili Taylor (Paula Klaw), Jared Harris (John Willie), Sarah Paulson (Bunny Yeager), Cara Seymour (Maxie), David Strathairn (Estes Kefauver), Norman Reedus (Billy Neal, husband), Dallas Roberts (Scotty), Jonathan M. Woodward (Marvin, acting school boyfriend), Alejandro Chaban (Armand), Kevin Carroll (Jerry Tibbs); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pamela Koffler/Katie Roumel/Christine Vachon; Picturehouse; 2005)
“Played with great charm and enthusiasm by Gretchen Mol.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”/”American Psycho”) and writer Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish”) turn their attention to a biopic on pinup and bondage film loop and magazine icon of the 1950s Bettie Page as played with great charm and enthusiasm by Gretchen Mol, in a brunette wig. The filmmaker gives us a sympathetic and carefully cultivated look that more or less makes the sex queen a pinup for their feminist cause, revised for modern times, and leaves out any dangers that might be associated with the porn industry and regretfully omits relevant things about Bettie’s personal life such as her sex life and later tragic events. The filmmaker leads us to believe that what drives her seems to be that she gets her rocks off posing nude or scantily dressed knowing that others enjoy her beauty. The film is shot mostly in black-and-white, but there are intervals of color footage that just pop up to break up the monotony of the 1950’s television look.

Bettie is viewed as a mundane innocent bimbo who grew up in a devoutly Christian household in Nashville, Tennessee, who had a series of misfortunes that led her down the road of cheesecake pornography. There are hints of fatherly abuse, a grim picture painted of an intolerant mother who wouldn’t allow the teenager to date, there’s a gang-rape as a result of her trusting nature, a bad short-term marriage to an abusive husband, and missing out on an art school scholarship over an art class grade lowered to an A- because she missed a class and therefore attended a teacher college which she was unsuited for. The wide-eyed Bettie arrives in NYC’s Times Square in 1949 aspiring to be an actress, gets photographed by an amateur black photographer (Kevin Carroll) at the beach, gets hooked up with a city camera-club as a model and pretty soon the shapely brunette finds she can make a good living being a nudie model. Things reach their climax when she goes to work for Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), brother-and-sister publishers of porn magazines and bargain basement dirty movies that specialize in men’s fetishes such as bondage. Bettie appears in underwear, nine-inch heels, thigh-high boots, whips, and chains. These smutty shots get the attention of the opportunistic Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), an aspiring one-time presidential candidate, who holds hearings against the pornographers, blaming the Klaws for a teenage boy’s suicidal death that aped some bondage photos. Though Bettie is asked to testify, she’s not called to the stand. This investigation makes her see the light and she returns to her religious roots, as she becomes a born-again Christian and saves her soul and soon after saves other souls (becoming a Christian missionary worker in Miami).

One of the film’s major problems was that Bettie seems to be a cipher, seemingly a nice person, whose life is not too fascinating. All she seems to do is pose in skimpy outfits in porn shots in the 1950s that are relatively tame for nowadays. The filmmaker takes a nonjudgmental view of her and the porn industry, and seems to be questioning why free speech advocates don’t take up the cause for porn with a greater voice. Through Bettie’s innocent eyes we are supposed to believe that exploitation is not part of the porn business, as the Klaws are seen as a friendly duo who were just having a blast and to the bargain making a few bucks with something as innocent as nudity photos and bondage films (Bettie when asked how Jesus would feel about her profession, responds by saying Adam and Eve were innocently naked in the Garden of Eden and only when people put on clothes was there a guilt-trip). Whether you buy into how innocent porn is or not, what the cultish film can’t overcome was how tedious and unimportant was Bettie’s story (basically about a career-driven airhead who has a mid-life crisis and a religious awakening which might or might not lead to further patriarchal exploitation) and how much of her true story was not told so that you really can’t be certain what is the real story and how much you were asked to swallow because it fitted Harron’s agenda (not mentioned was Bettie’s disappearance in the late 1950s, her failed second marriage and her stay in a mental hospital).