The Notorious Bettie Page
Mary Harron (The L Word, Oz, Big Love) and Guinevere Turner (The L Word, American Psycho)
If the current film is to believed, the notorious Bettie Page had no idea about the nature of her notoriety while it was going on. Shot in black and white to evoke the Notorious Bettie’s era (1950s), the story line is framed in senate hearings led by Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn reprising his Edward R. Murrow role but from the opposing side of the gavel).
Gretchin Moll as the 50s favorite alternative pin-up girl, in black-hair and bangs, has always had the ability to straddle that cross-cultural line between girl-next-door and everyman’s wet dream. And in this film, Moll oozes a restrained kind of sex appeal that seems to escape from an inner furnace.
The movie fast forwards through Bettie’s pre-pin-up girlhood and young adulthood, shorthanding her dark sexual experiences -- like the uncle who summons her upstairs and we know why ‒ by way of young Bettie’s meanginful looks. So the early part of her life feels rushed and sketchy.
The movie shows us Bettie as a bright college girl, derailed from her potential by the macho man in her life, Billy Neal (oh when, oh when will Norman Reedus get back to his more pensive “mysterious stranger” roles?). Happily, our heroine dumps Reedus after a single slap in the face and then falls naturally into a modeling career. We get to the good stuff when she hooks up with the brother and sister novelty photograph/film outfit (Irving Klaw) in New York. Lili Taylor is priceless as the shrewd business woman (Paula Klaw) who buys/designs the bondage outfits, while taking orders, doing the books, the PR and customer relations. Meanwhile, Bettie’s taking acting classes, meeting a really “nice” guy, and viewing her bondage photo shoots as a kind of blend of costume modeling and acting. But more importantly, she sees them as a lark, a hoot, a grand old time (for which she happens to make good money). The fact that Taylor’s running the show, that that the women through Bettie’s Career seem to be treated more as partners than pawns, helps make the movie’s thesis a little more believable ‒ that Bettie’s sense of what she was doing was entirely innocent.
For instance, she’s at a party, and one of her admirers asks her to sign a Bettie Page bondage post card. After she signs it, he looks her deep in the eyes and with hushed, pregnant voice asks if she doesn’t get so angry at fans like him that she wants to punish them. Hmn-hmn-hmn. Without missing a beat she responds that, no, she’s sure he’s a perfectly fine person.
In one of the most ironic moments, Bettie has her arms tied out between two posts and a ball gag in her mouth. Her photographer and friend John Willie (Jared Harris) picks that moment to get into a theological discussion about what God might think of Bettie’s career moves. Nodding for him to take out the ball gag, Bettie launches into several philosophical points, still tied up in a black corset and long black evening gloves. For one thing there seem to be too many deliberate statements in this scene ‒ declarations of Bettie’s intelligence (we got that already), of her innocence, of everyone in the business’s professionalism. That the photographer does her bidding, even while she’s in the proverbial “compromising position” suggests not so much professionalism as the unlikely fact that these people have absolutely no sexual investment in their work. Nor are they even jokingly aware of the sexual undertones in play. Is this possible, even in the fifties?
The movie doesn’t really provide the atmosphere in which these anomalies can fit. So yes, the fifties were a different era, relatively innocent, one could argue, at least on the level of public discourse. Also arguably just as ugly underneath. It’s possible that progressive people of the day viewed the “pervert” (especially with well-known fetishes like the foot fetish, exhibitionism, etc.) as a poor, laughable slob rather than a perpetrator of evil. But even if that were the case, somehow, the innocence of the age didn’t come across. And Bettie’s blind spot doesn’t fit with her well-demonstrated intelligence, nor with her history, which included sexual abuse at home and sexual abduction.
And when she confesses to her British male photographer that she thinks she has sinned, the sin she refers to is her nude posing (for which she skulks off to Miami Beach). There, she works with another female (somewhat feminist) photographer/business woman. I’m not enough of a historian to track it down, but since products of this shoot end up in Playboy, the gender of this photographer should be easy enough to document. The movie makes it seem as though Bettie’s whole career is cushioned in an egalitarian, sexploitation-free world of women business partners ‒ and if such were the case, it would be easy to believe she could maintain her innocence throughout. It would explain why she was shocked when her boyfriend finally sees her post cards and finds them revolting. And why, when she overhears a distraught father in the senate committee hearing blame his son’s bizarre bondage/suicide on these photo spreads, it drives Bettie into the arms of that Old Time Religion, never to pose pervy again.
In this way, it’s an odd little film. In spite of all, it still seems to want to say “witch hunt, bad”; “Bettie Page, good.” But I’m not sure that neat formula works. It shows some of Bettie’s films, the “Chastisement of Miss Lorraine,” ‒ the spanking of a bound, blindfolded woman, who later pleads on her knees as she’s dragged out into the woods ‒ or trussed up and forced into the trunk of a car. These filmic images were disturbing to a friend of mine who’s not in the scene and happened on the film without knowing what it was about. The clips of Bettie on all fours, bound, blindfolded and being forced to crawl along with a sort of spreader bar between her legs also set off his meter. They were shown to a narration that was equally graphic. And the film waits till the end, in the senate hearing, to produce these real-life stills. All this led me to believe that we are not getting much insight into the real Bettie Page in this film. But it’s an interesting enough romance on its own. I especially like the line that ends the movie when someone recognizes religious Bettie as the former Notorious Bettie and asks if she’s ashamed of her nude career. She responds in the negative. “It’s after Adam and Eve sinned that they put on clothes.” A nice thought for a light jaunt down BDSM’s Memory Lane.