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The Notorious Bettie Page (2005).

October 6, 2009

The Scoop:
Unlike “Bettie Page: Dark Angel,” this can be considered a true biopic of the iconic pinup queen. However, also unlike that film, “The Notorious Bettie Page” lacks a bit of sizzle.

Yet that’s not to say that Mary Harron’s film isn’t worth watching. Particularly exciting is Gretchen Mol’s performance in the title role. For all her fame and influence, Bettie Page is an idol who is frozen in amber for us. All we know of her comes from hundreds of still photographs and just a few film shorts, most of which are devoted more to particular fetishes rather than Bettie’s own considerable personality – and all of which came for just a short period of her life.

But Mol fills in the blanks wonderfully well. She bears a remarkable resemblance to Bettie and recreates the photogenic personality we know from all those pinups. But she also expands on that to bring to life a complex character who maintains a childlike innocence about her powerful sexuality, but who enjoys exercising it nonetheless. Plus, she’s not afraid to go the full monty with a refreshing exuberance.

The supporting cast — which includes Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw, Lili Taylor as Paula Klaw, and David Straithairn as Sen. Estes Kefauver – is also excellent.

Also of note is the cinematography of Mott Hupfel. His rich black and white photography creates a gritty, noir-esque vision of 1950s New York that also faithfully recreates the look and feel of Page’s pinup work with the Klaws. For the Miami sequences, Hupfel switches to a brilliant, pastel-filled color palette that matches the sunny world of Bunny Yeager’s photos of Bettie.

So where’s the problem? Mostly it’s in the screenplay by Harron and Guinivere Turner, who also teamed up for “American Psycho.” There is an evocative opening sequence introducing us to the world of 1950s adult bookstores, but the script quickly devolves from there into a clichéd naïve-country-girl-in-the-big-city take on Page’s pinup career. While we see all of the key moments in Bettie’s life from her start in modeling in New York in 1953 to her religious awakening in Miami in 1959, there is not depth or understanding to it. Also absent are all but a few hints of some of the darker, more extreme aspects of Page’s combustible sexuality.

Nowhere does the film really get under Bettie’s skin. So, consequently, it can’t get under the audience’s skin either. At the end of the film, Page remains just as much of a mystery to us as she was at the beginning, despite Mol’s best efforts to give us a glimpse at the real Bettie Page.

The film also avoids dealing with the mess of Page’s post-modeling life, which included evangelic missions, paranoid schizophrenia, an attempted murder trial, years in a psychiatric institution, followed by some messy copyright battles over her image in the 1990s. (She died in seclusion in 2008 at the age of 85). But that’s just as well, because that’s not the Bettie Page we want to remember.

We want to remember the Bettie staring back at us from all those classic pinup shots – energetic, confident and just as enticing to men as to women, generation after generation. “The Notorious Bettie Page” makes a spirited effort to capture that Bettie, but falls just a bit short.

Best Line:
“I’m not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, weren’t they? When they sinned, they put on clothes.”

Side Note:
This film is filled with improper camera technique on the part of the actors playing the photographers. While most of the cameras being used are period accurate, the actors are just waving them around without any clue of how they were supposed to be handled.

Companion Viewing:
“Bettie Page: Dark Angel” (2004) and “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996).


Take a Look:
The trailer:

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