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Michelle Thomas

Published August 4th, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

The Notorious Bettie Page Review

Classification: 18 Director: Mary Harron Rating: 3/5

Bettie Page (Mol) was, of course, a real person and a world famous pin-up. Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), who co-wrote the script with Guinevere Turner, takes us back to Bettie’s beginnings in the Deep South. A good girl, Betty dreams of being a actress, but is also a quiet, intelligent A student. After an early unsuccessful marriage, and being sexually assaulted, Bettie leaves the South and heads for New York where she takes acting classes.

Her acting career goes nowhere, though she meets a nice boy, Marvin (Woodward), but poses for a photographer who she meets on the beach. Her willingness to strip off, and the vitality and joy that she radiated in shots soon found her work, mainly with the Klaws (Taylor and Bauer) who run a small fetish studio and make films for private clients. Bettie’s sweet, cheerful good-nature sees nothing wrong in posing in leather and stilettos, pretending to hit other models with a riding crop – as long as she’s happy and making others happy, its fine with her. Gradually her work becomes better and better known, and eventually her fame causes some conflicts between her and Marvin.

Of course, this being the repressive 1950s, police are constantly on the look out for anything of a sexual nature, and when the Klaws – and consequently Bettie – find themselves the subject of a senatorial investigation Bettie’s notoriety was assured – and her career over.

Gretchen Mol won the ultimate accolade from Hollywood when she appeared, nipples very much to the fore, on the cover of Vanity Fair. She then disappeared for the best part of ten years, but now she and her nipples are back and she seems to have done some work on her acting. Bettie is of course so iconic with her dark fringe and wide red-lipsticked smile that it’s easy to believe that Mol IS Bettie, even though she doesn’t really look like her. But it’s also a very honest performance, with Mol cheerfully recreating some of Bettie’s most famous poses – which these days seem more comic than erotic. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, I guess…

If I had a problem with the film it’s that it never really seems to get under Bettie’s skin. There are hints that she was abused as a child; as an adult she exudes natural sexuality and an innocently healthy quality; she also never, ever seems to question what she’s doing, even when she’s posing bound with a snooker ball in her mouth. She seems to love Marvin, but we’re never sure what their living arrangements are, or if they plan to marry; she also cheats on him when on vacation in Florida. So there are no real emotional highs or lows – Bettie is raped, but shrugs it off and carries blithely in her sunny way.

Visually it’s a treat, with Harron recreating a noir feel for New York, reminiscent of Good Night and Good Luck, contrasting with Bettie’s trips to Florida, filmed in garish Technicolor like South Pacific. More of a curiosity than a must-see? Maybe.


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