The Notorious Bettie Page

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 December

Bettie Page dies, 2008

On this day in 2008, a woman who had devoted the bulk of her life to Christian causes died, aged 85. But for a while in her 1950s heyday, Bettie Page had been “Queen of Pinups”. She left behind a legacy and a look that can be seen all over contemporary culture, from Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Dita von Teese on down, to wherever cute girls play cute. A bright girl at school, and a member of the debating team, she was married and divorced by the age of 24, then set off to find fame and fortune as an actress. Modelling intervened and Bettie’s wholesome, unashamed behaviour in front of the camera soon got her noticed in glamour photography circles. Magazines with names such as Wink and Titter were soon full of Bettie Page. Page’s BDSM shoots, and special short 8mm and 16mm bondage films shot by Irving Klaw were also popular, with Page alternating as the dominatrix and as the poor helpless victim being spanked for being a naughty girl. But it was her work with Jan Caldwell, HW Hannau and Bunny Yeager that immortalised her, several series of pictures that showed Page frolicking in the sea, posing with animals, occasionally nude, usually not, but always sporting the sort of smile that could halt traffic. There was something so utterly innocent about Bettie Page that she seemed to de-smut pornography. She looked like a girl having a good time. And when asked, years later, after she had retired to deliberate obscurity, what she thought of her career in leopard-skin bikinis etc, she said “I never thought it was shameful… it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day.” Which it undoubtedly was.

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, dir: Mary Harron)

It’s now considered inappropriate (ie wrong) to comment on a woman’s breasts, but in the case of Gretchen Mol in this admirably truthful biopic about Bettie Page, it has to be said – they are fantastic. And Mol herself, generally underrated, really gets under the skin – if that’s the right phrase for a film about a skinflick model – of the first porn superstar. She’s stupendous as the guileless good-natured girl who saw no harm at all in taking her clothes off and did so with such abandon that none of the moral guardians of culture could quite work out how to deal with her. If we’re being sniffy about the film, it looks like Page had the same effect on the film-makers. The film is directed and written by a pair of women. Director Mary Harron had made I Shot Andy Warhol – about Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill the famous artist – and Guinevere Turner wrote Go Fish and episodes of the TV series The L Word. So there’s possibly a feminist agenda there. One which both Harron and Turner have a lot of trouble trying to pin to Page. So instead they go for period authenticity, and here the film really succeeds, with New York shot in the grainy black and white reminiscent of Super 8, Miami the fizzing colours of Kodak films of the era. People who believe that pornography – if that’s what Page was selling – has a corrupting effect won’t be flocking to watch this film, and it does have a tendency to assume that the argument has been conclusively won. But only the slightest tendency – this really is the “nudity as work” approach, with Mol playing the girl who took her clothes off because it paid the bills and she didn’t mind doing it. Mol’s playing of Page is fearless, and if she never penetrates the mystique, that’s because, the film suggests, the mystique is in our minds, not Bettie’s.

Why Watch?

  • Gretchen Mol’s brilliant performance
  • Mott Hupfel’s lush monochrome (mostly) cinematography
  • A window on a disappeared world
  • A support cast including Sarah Paulson and David Strathairn

The Notorious Bettie Page – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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