You don't often get to wax on the enigmatic qualities of pin-up queens, but, then again, Bettie Page was no run-of-the-mill babe. Her special appeal still endures in pop culture nearly 50 years after she last graced a girlie mag with her radiant smile, razor-sharp black bangs and (dare we say?) knockout body.
What accounts for the Bettie mystique? Books and scholarly texts have been written on the subject -- and from far more intellectual types than your humble reviewer -- but part of Bettie Page's allure is certainly the "naughty but nice" persona she cultivated during her 1950s' heyday. It helped, of course, that the Tennessee-born woman was beautiful, but her unique blend of sunny sexiness and forbidden dominatrix proved to be the most titillating kind of alchemy, which is explored in the biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page.
We are introduced to Bettie (Gretchen Mol) as she waits to appear before a U.S. Senate committee investigating pornography. The year is 1955, and this particular congressional witch-hunt is being conducted by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), who made a practice of raising his political profile by holding congressional hearings.
Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) explores Bettie's life in flashback, beginning with her upbringing in rural Tennessee. Young Bettie weathers some brutal experiences early on -- sexually abused by her father, later the victim of what is essentially a gang rape -- but Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner boldly resist playing armchair therapist. Throughout the movie, in fact, the filmmakers avoid easy connecting of the dots about how a nice Christian gal ends up posing with whips and chains – much less how she remains so optimistic and utterly guileless about it all.
After a brief and abusive marriage, Bettie hops aboard a bus for the bright lights of New York City, where she hopes to make it as an actress. At Coney Island she meets an amateur photographer, Jerry Ellis (Kevin Carroll), who subsequently introduces her to the world of "camera clubs." These groups, which thrived in the Fifties, primarily served as a way for sexually repressed men to get women to take off their clothes.
So begins the career of Bettie Page. A natural model unafraid to shed a few garments for the sake of a good picture, her curvaceous figure appears in a succession of magazines with such provocative titles as Wink, Eyeful and Peep Show. But she also explores more adventurous photo sessions, thanks to the brother-sister team of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) and their thriving business, Movie Star News. It isn't long before Bettie is alternating the leopard-print bikinis for fishnet stockings and stiletto heels … while bound and gagged. Hey, the Fifties weren't all Ozzie and Harriet.
Like Bettie (and Gretchen Mol, for that matter), the movie looks great. Harron adorns The Notorious Bettie Page with lush period detail that makes good use of archival footage, a terrifically nostalgic soundtrack and, best of all, the cinematography of W. Mott Hupfel III. Most of the film is shot in sumptuous black-and-white, but switches to a retro look of saturated colors once Bettie visits Florida and collaborates with celebrated fashion photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson).
Episodic and surprisingly good-natured, The Notorious Bettie Page is a work of broad brushstrokes. Viewers hoping for a deeper understanding of what made Bettie tick might be disappointed. In addition, the movie only skims the pin-up queen's 1959 conversion to Christianity (it doesn't even touch upon her later years, which would involve several incidents of violence and an eventual stint in a mental institution). An epilogue also would have been nice, if only to let audiences know that Bettie Page is alive and well, and living in semi-seclusion in California.
But those wanting to know what made Bettie va-va-va voom will find a lively and curiously whimsical picture postcard of a movie that champions the kinky sex and fetishism of the Eisenhower age. Harron gooses the mores of that period, but it is always a loving touch.
Portraying an icon is no easy feat, but Gretchen Mol is more than up to the task, encompassing the beguiling charm and cartoon sex appeal that made Bettie Page what science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison called "Venus on the spiked heel." When Mol, as Bettie, is instructed by an admiring shutterbug to be "pert" and "haughty," the resulting expressions are wonderfully goofy -- and goofily irresistible.
In anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, this is one stunning transfer, devoid of noticeable defects (as you would expect with a new release) and beautifully showcasing Hupfel's cinematographic magic.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. While the former doesn't necessarily make great use of immersive sound, the track is clear and full. Moreover, it is augmented by an evocative soundtrack that includes Patsy Cline, Artie Shaw, Charles Mingus and more.
Speaking as a diehard Bettie Page fan, I have to say the bonus features included are disappointing. A documentary on the pin-up queen herself seems like a no-brainer. If nothing else, the DVD producers would have done well to track down a 1998 E! True Hollywood Story that featured Bettie several years ago. But, hey, enough bellyaching. This is what the DVD does include:
A commentary track featuring Harron and Mol is sporadically entertaining, but there is little meat to chew on – their remarks are pretty standard stuff. An Inside Look at the Pin-Up Queen of the Universe is a 15-minute promotional featurette that makes a token effort to scratch the surface of the Bettie Page phenomenon. It's not a bad piece, per se, but its interviews with the filmmakers and cast add little insight.
Presenting Bettie Page is a bit more interesting, a two-minute, 18-second striptease from the Queen of Curves herself. Also included is a theatrical trailer.
Let's put it this way: If you're not already familiar with Bettie Page, you'll probably like The Notorious Bettie Page. But if you're already a fan of the Tennessee Tease, then this is not to be missed. I only wish the extras were as fun as the movie.