It takes a rare talent indeed to turn the story of a hot chick who takes off her clothes into a colossal bore, but director Mary Harron has done so in spades, despite a sassy performance from the gloriously naked Gretchen Mol. And I do mean naked, as she not only shows her sweet, perky breasts (marred somewhat by freakishly small areolas), but her nether regions as well, although it’s a bit unrealistic to portray her vagina as a mere briar patch, when the unshaven mandate of the era would likely have required an entire jungle.
The Notorious Bettie Page alternates between black & white and color, but thankfully, the first nude scene glistens with all the sparkle of a rainbow, and it takes our minds off the fact that the rest of the story is pretty thin. Mol, once the new It Girl before falling off the face of the earth (and appearing in box office duds like The Shape of Things), roars back with confidence and a body for numerous contortions, but her character is so empty and insignificant as to be a mere cipher. For all the insight the film gives us, Bettie Page was simply a lovely Nashville girl who posed for naughty photographs, dated a few guys, and threw it all away for Jesus.
And yet, despite the shallow treatment of an ostensibly fascinating subject, I couldn’t help but remain thankful that the script didn’t preach a cheap, dime-store psychology concerning motivations. A few brief scenes lead us to believe that Page turned to a life of “sin” due to an abusive father and a gang rape, but the film provides absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was a damaged woman. In fact, by all appearances, Bettie was upbeat, easy-going, and fully aware of her life goals. She wanted to be an actress, of course, but was pleased as punch to take off her clothes and pose for a room full of drooling men. Her famous smile was never forced.
Even when the photography turned to bondage, she continued to be as charming as ever, playing along with gusto and a hint of innocence. Interestingly, it could be argued that Harron has made a recruitment film for stripping as a viable career. Far from being a last resort or the predictable vocation of the depressed and desperate, it is an opportunity to have a lot of fun and meet interesting people. Again, nothing is more tiresome than beating up on the porn industry as a haven for sickos and perverts, but I also doubt that any branch of the industry is as sunny and bright as this film would have us believe. It needn’t be 42nd Street in the 1960s, but would it ever have been the Up With People tour of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?
In the absence of character development or any real story (Bettie’s first marriage passes by in seconds, consisting of a single slap and the packing of a suitcase), we are left to admire the crisp photography and attempt to capture the era, which is one of the least convincing snapshots of the 1950s in many years. Sure, there’s the Estes Kefauver commission investigating smut (the Tennessee senator is played by David Strathairn), but it’s always a misunderstood entity in the shadows, rather than a well-defined character in its own right. To explore the hypocrisy of the times would be eye-rollingly predictable, of course, but we never really learn why the culture fears these images. There’s the testimony of a distraught father who lost his son to a bizarre sex suicide, but the film is so confused and jumbled that we can’t tell whether or not the man is an object of scorn or sympathy.
Ambiguity is usually a good thing in cinema, but here, it’s simply the fault of a lazy screenplay that has no real identity. Page herself waits in the hall for an entire day, but is never allowed to testify. So what happened? What did the commission end up doing with the purveyors of indecency? Paula and Irving Klaw (Bettie’s employers) — played by Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer — burn their negatives and film canisters to avoid prosecution, but such drama is cut off at the knees the moment we get interested. Frankly, I would have preferred the movie leave Bettie behind and follow these folks through the rest of their days. That said, I’m fundamentally opposed to seeing Lili Taylor in any stage of naked.
Bettie finally sees the sign from God she’s been waiting for — in the form of a bright cross glowing through the trees — and she follows it to a church where she is, presumably, born again. The scene is an odd one, to be sure, as the preacher veers from parody to earnestness so rapidly that we half expect a jump cut to the man pounding Bettie’s sweet ass on the church organ. But she accepts Jesus into her heart and never poses again, and when we last see her, she is offering Bible verses to strange men in much the same way her pictures were given up to the trench coat set.
Still, Bettie seems exactly the same as before, and it would not have been a stretch to have her reading scripture while clad only in thigh-high boots, wielding a cat o’ nine tails. Her religious kick, convincing in one sense (she’s too dimwitted to fake it), is just another product of an unparalleled naiveté, which at one turn allows her to get into a car with a perfect stranger (which leads to the rape), and at another, walk back to the studio of a photographer simply because he says he’d like to see her undress.
Perhaps Bettie is imagined as an empowered feminist hero by the director (remember, this is the same woman who glorified Valerie Solanas, the bitter cunt who shot Andy Warhol and founded the “Society for Cutting Up Men,” or S.C.U.M.), but she’s such a non-entity that I can’t imagine what there is to admire. Sure, she spanked other women and submitted to being tied up like a trooper without a hint of shame, but outside of a great figure, what the hell did she contribute to the cause of womankind? If the director is arguing that the pinnacle of power for a female is to control where, when, and how often a man masturbates, I doubt few women’s studies majors would agree to the terms. On second thought, maybe she does have something.