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FILM Review **..: ...Bettie Page... Too Good to be Notorious

Documentary Drama Revisits Life of 1950s Supermodel

By Yong-Yi Zhu

The Notorious Bettie Page

Directed by Mary Harron

Written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner

Starring Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor,
David Strathairn, Jonathan M. Woodward, Cara Seymour

Rated R

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Can a woman pose nude for photos without being considered immoral? What if she doesn’t judge these photos to be morally wrong? “The Notorious Bettie Page” seeks to answer those questions by showing us a glimpse into the life of a model who lived during an American sexual revolution and, on the surface, seemed to be out for money and fame at all costs.

Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), one of the most famous pinup models of the 1950s, transformed from an innocent Tennessee girl to the queen of bondage. Bettie was a natural — even as a child, she enjoyed posing for photographs. When she moved to the big city, every photographer in town took an immediate liking to her work, and she was soon on the cover of everything that required scantily dressed women. Her work, though, took an underground turn when she getting photographed for sexually deviant magazines.

Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer), a man who produces non-nude bondage photographs, is put on trial for producing and mass-mailing sexually-aberrant photographs all across the country.

As the film tells it, Irving hired Bettie Page, and her costumes were initially relatively innocuous, but the job turned bizarre as Irving armed Bettie with gags and leather whips. Eventually, he even had her performing in movies where she tied up other women or was tied up by them.

In addition to presenting her blossoming modeling career, the movie shows the trials and tribulations Bettie endured as a woman with so much sex appeal. As a child, her father sexually abused her, and later on, she was kidnapped and gang-raped. Even though her mother forbade her to date at a young age, she remained an object of sexual desire her entire life.

Surprisingly, any of those circumstances could have sent a person into depravity, yet they seemed to only fuel Bettie’s innocence. Bettie still maintained her religion through it all, and the film portrays her reconciliation of work and faith as she struggles her way through life.

One weakness is the movie is a bit unfocused at times; it tries to incorporate Bettie’s modeling career in New York, an attempt at a relationship, and an acting job she considers — without providing ample explanations for any of them. I got confused as to whether Bettie wanted to model and how seriously she considered acting as a career. Some of the scenes came out of nowhere and did not add to the movie.

For example, one scene shows Bettie in an acting seminar, doing an exercise in sitting still for two minutes. Somehow, at the end of those two minutes, she has already stripped off her clothing. It seems that no matter how much she wants to avoid it, her life always returns to modeling; that’s where she truly excels.

Most of the film is appropriately shot in black and white. The cinematography is very clever — it leads the audience through Bettie’s life by filming different geographic locations in different styles. The most poignant location in the movie is Miami, the only location shot in color. The vivacity of color amid black and white symbolizes how Miami made Bettie feel open and free-spirited.

Though the acting is relatively weak, the makeup does a convincing job of identifying the decade. The best makeup work appears on Mol — who, transformed, looks strikingly similar to Bettie Page. With Mol’s authentic look, we are drawn into Bettie’s world, able to experience her joys and suffer her notoriety.