The Notorious Bettie Page
2006, R, 100 min. Directed by Mary Harron. Starring Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 21, 2006
Where would we be without the twinned female icons, Bettie Page and Louise Brooks? We'd be minus two of the most influential hairstyles in history, of course. Both Page, the Fifties-era pinup model who soared to glorious infamy on the wings of Sen. Estes Kefauver and the Senate Subcommittee on Pornography hearings, and Brooks, who found herself cast out of Hollywood for being, among other tussles, too overtly and intellectually dominant (after which German director G.W. Pabst secured her place in film annals via Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl), were decades ahead of their time. So much so, in fact, that they both pulled disappearing acts at what should have been the height of their careers, only to turn up later, just in time to be rediscovered by a culture that has only recently caught up with them. Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page (co-written with Guinivere Turner) is a splendid visual treat – Mott Hupfel's crisp black-and-white photography evokes both seamy noir and Eisenhower-era American naivete, while occasionally switching to some of the most gorgeously supersaturated color stock this side of Douglas Sirk). But like Page herself, the film leaves you wanting more. Mol inhabits the role of Page like a second skin, and while she's not as curvy as the real thing, she's got the sassy, wide-eyed innocence down pat. Moving from Tennessee to New York to pursue a vague dream of acting, Page's life (before her 1957 rebirth as a devout evangelical Christian, anyway) is mapped out by Harron in a studious narrative line, moving from her "discovery" by the Brooklynese brother-and-sister photography team of Irving and Paula Klaw (Bauer and Taylor) to her eventual pairing with Floridian shutterbug Bunny Yeager and from there to Kefauver's Subcommittee and her eventual exit from the pinup world. Like Page, Mol is clearly, delightfully unashamed of her body in whatever stage of undress we might find it, and while many of Page's photo collections and Super-8 stag loops featured genuinely transgressive bondage and domination themes, Mol and Harron make it obvious that sexuality was the furthest thing from Page's mind. ("Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden," she muses at one point. "It was only after they sinned that they put on clothes.") But then what was she thinking about while the drooly neighborhood photo club enthused over her delectable tush? Harron doesn't know, or care to guess, and so neither do we – The Notorious Bettie Page raises more questions than it answers, which is not necessarily a bad thing. No matter how many retro-burlesquers and online cheesecake Suicide Girls you see sporting her sexy black ’do, Page herself remains a haunting, ethereal enigma. Harron's film captures her spirit but not her soul. It's less cheesecake than angel-food: frothy, light, and delicious, sure, but two hours later you're ready for something slightly more substantive. Maybe it's time to bring on Our Miss Brooks. See austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2006-04-21/screens_feature.html for an interview with the director.)