Notorious Bettie Page, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 03/03/07 15:16:00

"Lots of flesh, but not fleshed out."
3 stars (Average)

For decades, the pin-up and fetish model Bettie Page has been an intoxicating and suggestive image for many men (and some women). In 'The Notorious Bettie Page,' she remains just that and nothing more.

It's as if writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) and her co-writer Guinevere Turner looked at Bettie's life and found nothing there to relate to. Harron located the dark-comic humanity in two very different kinds of homicidal sociopaths Valerie Solanas and Patrick Bateman but in the gentle, innocent Bettie she finds no point of entry. She just presents a highlight reel, impersonally and without comment.

Gretchen Mol plays Bettie with a winning lack of self-consciousness. For a long while, the film is a portrait of a woman who manages to reconcile her devout Christianity with her exhibitionism, with no trace of hypocrisy or irony. The way she sees it, God made her to pose for photos, and the photos make men happy, and there's no harm in it. The grim reapers of the Kefauver hearings, though, argued that Bettie's work was indeed harmful. Like The People Vs. Larry Flynt, the movie congratulates its hip, liberal, indie-film-watching audience for sneering at prudes. I'm always up for prude-bashing myself, but does Harron really mean Bettie's fetish modelling to come across as empowering in some way?

The Notorious Bettie Page is mostly shot in bland black and white, except for home-movie sequences (shades of Raging Bull) and, for some reason, the sequences set in Miami, where Bettie went to pose for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). Filmed against the blue, blue ocean, Bettie shows her body as innocently as a kitten would. But we're also shown Bettie's religious upbringing, and it's implied that she was sexually abused by her father and violated by a bunch of men in the woods. How such a woman goes from those experiences to being a pin-up girl and not, say, a nun or a man-hating lesbian is a mystery and remains a mystery as the end credits roll. Essentially, Bettie is the anti-Valerie Solanas: instead of writing The SCUM Manifesto and shooting an artist, she is shot in various corsets and bondage gear by schlock artist Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor, who played Valerie Solanas for Harron, and here brings it full circle).

Harron and Turner use Bettie as a sort of found object of pre-feminist feminism. Bettie just does what she wants to do, and eventually that includes leaving modelling behind and embracing Jesus anew. Again, Harron presents this with no comment, as if she didn't know quite what to make of it. It's implied that Bettie had a change of heart after hearing that a young man died while duplicating one of her bondage poses, but she also says she isn't ashamed of what she did. Who knows how she feels? Bettie is a cipher throughout, despite Gretchen Mol's honorable efforts.

And the movie steers clear of the allegations made by Richard Foster in his controversial (read: denounced by Page and her legion of fanboys) 1997 bio The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups that Bettie became a violent religious zealot in later years and was institutionalized repeatedly, once for attempted murder. Such messiness is outside the film's sanitized purview. Conveying neither the joy nor the agony of its subject, The Notorious Bettie Page emerges as a real emotional zero shocking, coming from a director of Mary Harron's intelligence and vision.

Some movies paint a complex subject in shades of gray and come out the better for it. But the Bettie Page of this movie isn't a complex subject, however much Harron may want her to be, and the noncommittal grayness of the movie comes off as an inexpressive smudge.

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