Judge Brett Cullum would have never imagined that Bettie Page could be anticlimactic. Fortunately, Mol's acting spices things up.
Show Some Restraint.
Bettie Page appeared on the New York modeling scene in the late '40s, and by the late '50s she mysteriously disappeared in to the ether again. Bettie is still alive (as of this writing), and living in seclusion somewhere in Southern California without anyone except Hugh Hefner knowing where she is. She doesn't want to be seen in her 80s for fear of ruining pop culture's memory of what she looked like when she was the "ultimate pinup queen." She's had some mental problems, but she's kept things pretty quiet outside of that episode. She remains an icon of pinup, bondage, and female sexual liberation. She was bound for fame with an exuberance for posing while tied up, gagged, or wielding a whip. Bettie will forever be the anti-Marilyn Monroe—brunette, dominant, and sexualized to a fetish degree. It's no surprise The Notorious Bettie Page is one of the most interesting biopics to come out in recent memory. Forget Walk the Line starring the "Man in Black"; here's the woman who made Gothic black hair all the rage for S & M enthusiasts everywhere.
The Notorious Bettie Page seems a paradox of a title, since the film is as tame as the pictures Page was famous for when seen in retrospect. True to life, the real Bettie Page was simply a Southern girl with a deep religious conviction and a sense that nudity was a natural lark. She never saw the kink, and never sank in to the depravity most would assume of the bondage model. She didn't drink, smoke, or have promiscuous, lurid affairs. She was an upright young lady who thought she was merely "helping" out by posing in provocative situations. Therein lies the real rub of the film; there's not much to deal with other than some brave photographic situations. Page never has any explosive incidents where she hits rock bottom with booze or pills, and doesn't have a taste for endless streams of men. The most shocking thing is that she isn't shocking at all, and conservative minds will reel as they realize slight pornography does nothing to taint our heroine.
During preproduction Martin Scorsese was planning his own take on Bettie with star Liv Tyler, but their plans were scrapped when The Aviator was green lit. Instead, this project features two power women of the independent scene treating the subject with their own style and verve. Director Mary Harron and scriptwriter Guinevere Turner helmed the celebrated adaptation of American Psycho, so is it any surprise they turn Page's story in to a visceral examination of sexual politics? Just as they skewered the '80s "greed is good" male mentality of their former film, The Notorious Bettie Page lays waste to the misconception of the puritanical Leave it to Beaver world we associate with the '50s. Together with cinematographer Mott Hupfel, they work to make The Notorious Bettie Page look and feel like an authentic '50s feature. Think Far From Heaven but with kinky costumes and full frontal nudity. It's shot three quarters in black and white for Tennessee and New York with only sequences in Florida and magazine covers being shown in a hyper over saturated color associated with Technicolor.
The movie belongs to Gretchen Mol (Cradle Will Rock) who delivers a breathtaking performance as the lead subject. The B-movie queen proves herself capable of far more than simply looking pretty in a black wig with squared off bangs. She treads nicely between naughty and innocent without making the two feel like a dichotomy. Nobody else gets much screen time due to the fact Page was a solitary figure who kept changing the cast of characters around her. Lili Taylor (lead in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol), Chris Bauer (Broken Flowers), David Strathaim (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Sarah Paulson (Serenity) all blip by in supporting roles along with many somewhat familiar faces.
The DVD presentation is solid enough. The color scenes look better to the eye with less grain and more depth. The black and white was done in an unnatural way from the source material through digital manipulation, and it looks thin without depth to the black levels and a strange blue tint. Edge enhancement and grain are more likely to appear in the black and white sequences. It's not a bad transfer, just a strange source. The score is flat for the most part with atmospherics kicking in on the surround during Congressional hearings and crowd scenes which are few. The commentary track finds the director, writer, and actress waxing philosophical about their subject and film. It's talky and fun, but nothing revelatory. We get a nice "making of" feature, as well as three minutes of actual Bettie Page footage with nudity. It's a nice package—both sides of that coin to be exact.
The Notorious Bettie Page is a quiet little film about a beautiful girl who was never a victim of the lewd career she chose. Harron,Turner, and Mol seem content with showing Bettie's thoughts without imparting her soul. Sexual abuse is implied early in the film, but the character rebounds well and keeps her head on straight throughout. What makes the film fascinating is the look at the '50s for what they really might have been. Despite any white washing, there was a real underbelly and sexual deviancy aching to be set free. Certainly the '60s didn't spring up out of nowhere, and this film shows you how that happened. Ironically it took a good girl being bad to make everything come crashing down. And in the end, Page kept her dignity even if she lost her clothes along the way. The Notorious Bettie Page is a quirky good time, but nothing too shocking. And that is the biggest surprise of them all. The real Bettie Page found the title amusing and not appropriate for what her life was all about. Still, I am glad the project was helmed by two women who had the smarts to realize she was no victim.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Mary Harron, Screen Writer Guinevere Turner, and Actress Gretchen Mol
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