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Notorious Bettie Page, The
For Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol, "The Shape of Things"), life in Nashville, Tennessee was one of routine and abuse. Ditching her first husband for the hot lights of New York City, Bettie falls into the world of swimsuit modeling to help pay the bills. Finding a taste for the limelight, Bettie continues down the photographic road, soon leading to fully nude pictures and even more bad relationships. Bettie's greatest achievement is found in the realm of bondage, where her racy pictures and underground films made her a legend in the industry, eventually leading to her downfall when government indecency charges and her own dedication to Jesus couldn't be ignored.
Clocking in just under 90 minutes, "The Notorious Bettie Page" doesn't give itself much breathing room to deconstruct a sexual icon. This is a sliver of a movie, gliding lightly above the real meat and potatoes of Page's life to present a quick portrait of a time in America when the sexual revolution was just beginning to simmer.
Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (who last collaborated on the 80s excess send-up, "American Psycho") have a very specific goal with their Bettie Page movie: reconstruct the glowing landscapes and askew sexuality of the 1950s. At its best, "Page" is an amazing recreation of a time when kinks were just starting to surface in the mainstream, pushed along by Bettie Page and her naive journey to superstardom. Working with a limited budget, Harron deftly uses stock footage to fill the location gaps in Bettie's travels, while also photographing most of the picture in black and white. The cinematography (by Mott Hupfel) is wonderfully subtle, and places the viewer in the cinematic feel of the era (like "Far from Heaven," but with full frontal). Working with very little, Harron does a tremendous job getting the minutiae right.
For Bettie's Florida adventures, when she escapes to the beach to get away from the disappointments of her life and begin her exceptional work with photographer Bunny Yeager, Harron adds color to the proceedings. These sections of the film (along with montages of Page's magazine covers) burst with splendid coloring, vividly matching the saturated film stocks of the era. Lustfully covering Bettie's more iconic portfolio offerings, along with giving the eye some pastel-drenched scenery, the color sequences provide further proof that even without sound "Page" would be a marvel to watch.
Bouncing around in time, "Page" has a lot of ground to cover, detailing Bettie's sexual assaults, her rise to bondage glory, the various men in her life, and the reoccurring Christian guilt that ultimately killed her career and continues to pursue her to this day (she lives in seclusion in Southern California). Harron doesn't pay close attention to every subplot, leaving "Page" a surprisingly weightless bio-pic. Eventually there is confusion over what made Bettie tick at the top of her game, and her relationships with men are left vague when they appear to play a central role in her decision making. Harron can't juggle everything thrown at her, but she nails the decaying innocence of the time, matching the primal thrill of nudity with the uncomfortable rising depravity of Bettie's fan base.
As Bettie, Gretchen Mol deserves every accolade in the book, if only because her acting is such a revelation. Bopping around some mediocre films for most of her career, Mol stands at attention in "Page," digging into the muck of Bettie's life with both hands. Mol is there with a lascivious wink and a million dollar smile for the glamour portion of Bettie's career (along with aptly filling Page's bodily dimensions), as she willingly slips into outlandish fetish "costumes" (as she justifies it) and eventually stars in the grainy 16mm bondage films that took down the industry. Equally as compelling are Mol's dramatic movements, accurately demonstrating the insecurities Bettie had with her acting abilities and the lure of the born again life. Mol is spot-on in a terribly difficult role.
Take it as a slice of smut history, and "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a sensational motion picture, depicting such an important building block of American sexual development. Those searching for a deeper portrait of Bettie and her ills are bound to be disappointed, so my advice is to sit back and bask in the heyday of peppermint candy pornography, and the visually evocative birth of a pin-up sensation.