The Notorious Bettie Page

To stay on the subject of porn and good cheer... The Notorious Bettie Page is a wonderful movie. The original Ms Page was a one-of-a-kind creature. In the 1950s she was famous equally for her cheesecake photos as well as for appearing in bondage magazines. In 7 years she appeared in more magazines than Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford together. She did some Broadway plays, was an early Playboy pinup and then disappeared from the scene. In the 70s she somehow became a punk icon. More recently she is the star of some (rather boring) comics.

Bettie Page Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page

Very few of the fetish films she did survive today because of a government crackdown (just after which, she disappeared) but to even see one is enough to embrace her goofiness. A goofiness that director Mary Harron and Gretchen Mol brings to a movie version (shot partly in colour and partly in black and white). I don't like ingenues but Gretchen Mol who plays Bettie Page is the messiah of ingenues. She reclaims girl-next-door. She is the orange juice and sunshine that would make you shed your black lipstick and Malayalee boyfriend with a rock band. She and a completely sweet cast of characters make a surprisingly heartwarming movie. Not that the director of American Psycho can make a sentimental movie but this is It's a Wonderful World for pomo-addicts.

There have been complaints that this movie ignores the seamier side of the porn business. Harron's interpretation is gloriously free of judgement but it is not Disney. I think it would be a mistake to take Bettie's naivete at face value. It is in the texture of the movie (its ironic use of music, its refusal to create an artifical moral resolution) than in the naivete itself that you see Bettie's courage and in turn Gretchen's courage. JM Coetzee asks in an essay on Clarissa what the appropriate response is for a man to soul-wrenching beauty? In Bettie's case her geeky photographers are awed and gratified at her ease and enjoyment of posing nude. In one crucial scene Bettie (on an impulse) posed nude in a sunny park for a photographer. Many reviewers' response to this scene has been an identical awe and gratitude to Gretchen Mol.

Gretchen Mol has an unusual story too. She started wonderfully. Discovered by a talent scout when she was a hat-check girl she was catapulted into movies. Woody Allen, Spike Lee, named IT girl, then came a Vanity Fair cover where her nipples showed through her dress. This cover is said to have started a round of gossip which basically translated to 'girls who show skin probably can't act'. And that was that for a good long time. After doing a lot of bit roles came this movie. If you watch her in it, you can't imagine anyone else playing Bettie Page.

A sequence from The Notorious Betty Page

Silly Footnote: Throughout the movie I kept thinking that somewhere Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon must be sticking pins into voodoo doll of Mary Harron. Then I read in an interview of Harron that one of the reasons she made the movie was because she was inspired by the experiences of her actress stepmother Catherine Mckinnon. I choked for one minute then realised that this was a completely different person.


Newer Post Older Post Home