The Notorious Betty Page is something of a conundrum. It’s about pornography, but it’s not even remotely smutty. It’s nostalgic, but it’s directed by Mary Harron, whose I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho were completely without pathos. And it stars Gretchen Mol in a star-making performance, almost a full decade the career promised by Vanity Fair after they called her the next ‘It’ girl, never materialized.
For anyone unawares about who Betty Page was, and just what made her so notorious in the first place, she was perhaps the most famous pin-up girl of the 1950s. She began modeling in bathing suits, but she soon found her way into ‘gentlemen’s’ magazines posing nude, and eventually started appearing in S & M and bondage photos and films. Although she retired from the limelight in before the dawn of the 60s, she remained, and continues to remain, one of the most well known pin-ups of all time.
In the film, we first meet Betty as she awaits to testify before anti-smut crusading senators. We flashback to Tennessee where we see a teenaged Betty, as a bright young woman with a promising future. She marries her high school sweetheart, but leaves him when he begins to get abusive. She makes her way to New York and starts taking acting lessons in her spare time while working as a secretary. She meets an amateur photographer who asks her to model for him, which leads to further modeling gigs, and she’s on her way to leather whips and 12 inch heels.
Like any good bio-pic, the film is only carried so far as the portrayal of the profilee by the lead actor or actress. In the case of Betty Page, our impressions of her are based solely on what we know of her life and from whatever pictures we’ve seen of her in passing; Mol’s job was to do more than just look like Page, but to make known and make believable Page’s journey from teacher’s college to bondage films.
Mol easily carries the movie by giving Page a cheery naivety with just a dash of moral ambiguity about her. When someone asks her about posing nude, she says with a smile that Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden and it wasn’t until they sinned that they were forced to wear closes. Sill, there are times when that smile fades for but a brief instance, as if the thought of the consequences to her career had just caught up with her. But the film never gets judgmental, not even so much of a hate the sin, love the sinner philosophy.
The film is obviously a low budget, independent production, but the art direction by Gideon Ponte easily transports us to the 50s. But it’s more than just a look, it’s a feeling created by the costumes, the props, the dialogue and the performances; it’s as if the people in the film really were living the 50s as opposed to just recreating them. Cinematographer Mott Hupfel gives the film it’s nostalgic glow with lush black and white photography. He also switches it up by adding vintage 50s colourization to scenes of Page visiting Miami Beach.
There are some script problems though, their are many examples of the filmmakers sort of gloss over some of the less than pleasant aspects in Page’s life. I’m not sure if it was a byproduct of the production process or just never attacked on paper in the first place. And although I appreciate Harron’s reservations in not getting preachy with the subject matter, it really felt as though she should have said something, even if it was just a remark on the tameness of Page’s ouvre by today’s standards.
Also, Page’s motivations are, at best, left unclear. A number of questions are left hanging, particularly the question about why she disappeared into self-imposed obscurity at the end of the 50s. The opportunity could have also been used to point out how a talented and studious actress like Betty Page couldn’t be taken seriously as such because of her pin-up career; a clear contrary to modern showbiz, where being a serious young actress entails being a Maxim magazine centrefold at least once.