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Movie Review: The Notorious Bettie Page

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 1, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page

Can a 90-minute or a two-hour film get into the soul of a person? I ask because The Notorious Bettie Page has made me wonder about the fascination of filmmakers making biopics and us audiences taking the time to watch them.

We all know the format. The traditional biopic begins with the subject’s childhood, which both provides a glimpse at who that person will be when he/she becomes an adult and also usually includes some traumatic event. Then there’s some scenes of the subject’s development before settling on what made the subject famous for the bulk of the movie. Finally the film ends on either a high point in the subject’s life or after the subject has come to terms with his/her place in history.

To date, writer/director Mary Harron has made two biopics, neither of which are traditional of the genre. Her first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, is structured more like a thriller. We only get a glimpse of the young would be assassin Valerie Solanis, and nothing of her childhood, before the film moves right into her slow descent into madness and alienation while simultaneously getting involved with Warhol’s party scene. Both storylines finally climax into the final fateful event described by the title.

The Notorious Bettie Page at least has the traditional biopic structure. It starts with Bettie as a child, a church going southern gal with a penchant for hamming it up in front of a camera. The film also hints at a sexually abusive relationship with her father. Next we see Bettie as the prettiest gal in town (although she doesn’t believe it) who escapes from an abusive marriage, escapes with her life from a tragic incident and finally escapes her small town to make a new life in New York City.

Bettie eventually falls into the world of modeling by accident and, through her “girl next door” looks and a willful naivete, becomes involved in the world of pornography, such as it was in the mid-’50s. The Bettie in the film never seems aware of what impact her photographs have on the outside world. People, such as brother/sister pornographers Irving and Paula Klaw, just want to take Bettie’s picture, so she’s happy to oblige them even if it involves her getting topless, fully nude, strapped in a leather bodice or spanking another woman. While these kinds of photographs are extremely tame to the kind of pornography available today, back then they caused a major scandal resulting in a Senate hearing on indecency.

But where Harron skirts biopic conventions is that while the film is about Bettie Page and she’s in 98% of all scenes we never really get to know who she is as a woman or understand her motivations. Ambiguity is a trademark of Harron’s and she wields it very skillfully with each project, especially with this film.

The real life Bettie Page is something of an enigma to begin with. Not that much is known about Bettie aside from the obvious facts (where she was born, who she was married to, who took her picture) and after retiring in the ’50s, she has gone into seclusion and refuses to have her picture taken ever again and rarely, if ever, talks about her work as a pin-up icon, even though reports say she’s flattered people still show such interest in her.

Thus Harron never gets too deep into Bettie’s motivations or aspirations. By the end of the film we don’t really know what made Bettie Page tick or if those early tragic events in her life had any effect on her future profession. Just as we look at those old pin-ups of Bettie and wonder what she was thinking back then, we end up watching the film wondering why this pretty young girl does all the outrageous things she does.

Was Bettie Page “brave” for posing in pornographic pictures and movies? We don’t know. However, I think Gretchen Mol must be tremendously brave for appearing fully naked in this film. She also portrays Bettie as a very innocent soul with a charming combination of sexiness and goofiness. To take a character who was written to be almost a blank and still bring so much meat to the role is an amazing feat.

For a traditional biopic, I would think reviewing it by saying I still don’t know much about the main subject would be a negative thing. But Mary Harron’s un-traditional approach to this film, so much like her previous work, has created a biopic that is truly engaging. Rather than tell us who Bettie Page was, Harron leaves that to us to figure out.