THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGER
The thing about Bettie Page is that even when she was naked, she looked innocent. That, and the naughty but utterly silly bondage footage she shot, have made Page a pinup superstar whose image speaks to us of a more innocent, yet repressed, time in American sexual history.
Page was born in Tennessee, raised in a conservative religious family. After dropping out of teachers college, she headed for the bright lights of New York, where her cheery nature, lush figure and willingness to pose in (and out of) all sorts of outlandish outfits quickly made her a key player in the sexual demimonde. But Page also came along at a time when the U.S. Senate began to investigate the alleged impact of pornography on America's youth, hearings which ultimately led to the end of her nudie-cutie career and a return to Page's Gospel-tinged roots.
It's a good story, and Gretchen Mol makes a good Page, her performance filled with Candide-like innocence and warmth. She also, not surprisingly, looks great whether in clothes or out.
Yet director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner seem seriously conflicted about the tone of their film. The best parts-those featuring a wonderful Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer as the brother/sister duo who introduce Page into the bondage-photo biz-are filled with camp humor and a wink-wink tone that seems perfectly a propos to the silliness on display. But these sections are paired against more serious elements, including Page's gang rape by hometown yokels and peeks into the lurid, rather sleazy world of 1950s photography clubs and behind-the-counter magazine sales. In these instances, The Notorious Bettie Page plays like a cautionary tale about government and sexual repression, and the ways in which the young and innocent can have their heads turned by easy money and cheap thrills.
It's not that Bettie turns to drugs and wild sex. If anything, she remains, a little unconvincingly, too much the naïf throughout her pinup career. But by never settling on the way they want to tell Page's story, the filmmakers have created a project that seems pointless.
Is Bettie Page an early symbol of feminist empowerment? A woman whose winking photo presence seemed to say that she understood the absurdity of her role playing, and thus made her decades ahead of her time? Was she, in fact, an icon of sexual liberation?
Or was Page a female whose lushness and innocence were taken advantage of by unscrupulous pornographers? Is her life a cautionary tale about America's repressive tendencies? The Notorious Bettie Page never really answers these questions.