The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            Iconic 1950s pinup model Bettie Page was a sweetheart. Despite posing nude, or in bondage gear, she always wore her genuine sweet smile, and always seemed to be having a good time. She had this odd, indefinable quality about her; no matter how depraved her poses (and in the 1950s, her leather straps and ball gags were considered all the more pornographic), she always seemed to project an air of girl-next-door innocence. Hence, Bettie Page was a mystery to most of the people who knew her; it was never clear to anyone if she was innocent, naïve, or simply uncaring about the sexual nature of her job. Mary Harron’s new biopic attempts to define Ms. Page with only moderate success.

            The film follows, in a rather literal fashion, Bettie Page’s series-of-events: Bettie Page (a rather good Gretchen Mol, looking surprisingly like Page, although anyone would with that hairdo) was born in Tennessee, was a star at her high school and an avid churchgoer. She dreamt of becoming an actress in New York. She was considered the prettiest girl in town, and was targeted my many suitors. She was sexually abused by her father (which the film has the decency to not show). She had a brief first marriage to a young Tennessee man before moving to New York. She was sexually assaulted by a group of young men in New York, the psychological implications of this are never made clear (although the film also has the decency not to imply that her sexual abuse resulted in her modeling). She didn’t land any acting gigs, but was noticed by a policeman-cum-photographer on a beach one day, and found that she could make money just posing in a swimsuit. Her modeling career took off, and while her photos became more and more rough, she never seemed to be doing any more than playing dress-up. Eventually she was peripherally involved in a senate investigation into pornography. She eventually returned to Tennessee and to Jesus.

It is a stylish film; New York was shot in black & white, while the beaches of Florida came through in ultra-saturated colors. I knew little of Bettie Page’s personal life before going into the film, and I know just about as much going out. Bettie Page was profoundly ineffable. How did she really feel about posing nude? The fantasy is that she knew exactly how sexual she was being, and that she, in a feminist stroke, accepted her status as an image, and took sexual control of her body. The reality is probably closer to a sweet working girl, perhaps a touch naïve, trying to make ends meet. The film doesn’t purport to know her any better than her acquaintances.

April 14th, Picturehouse

Published in: on August 7, 2008 at 8:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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