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April 20, 2006


The Squeaky-Clean Bettie Page

Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page

I don't know about you, but before The Notorious Bettie Page, I wasn't too impressed with former almost It girl Gretchen Mol. She was totally forgettable in Rounders and Donnie Brasco, and even on stage in Neil LaBute's play The Shape of Things just didn't have the same presence as other actors like Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd.

All the attention she's getting for her performance in this movie could bring her, as one critic put it, "a comeback on a Heath Ledger-like scale. " What's so great about the movie and this characterization of Bettie Page is the way it totally redefines "dirty" pictures and 1950's pornography. Gretchen Mol plays her sort of like Dorothy Gale as a pin-up model.

In the movie, Bettie Page herself sees no shame in posing for pictures--after all, there's nothing inherently dirty or profane about a woman in her underwear, or sitting naked in the woods. And staged bondage photos in themselves are more goofy and hilarious than they are salacious. Whatever dirtiness there is in photos like Bettie's is projected onto them by alarmist Senate sub-committees or creepy, self-loathing "fans". The photos themselves show Bettie as a powerhouse of positive life energy (hokey, I know, but how else to describe her?)

It's not surprising that a writer/director like Mary Harron would take this approach. In her first movie, I Shot Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas is a compelling but mentally unstable character, but Andy Warhol's arrogance and total disregard for the people around him casts him as the bad guy. American Psycho was also about an outrageously vain man projecting all his self-hatred and sickness onto (mostly) female victims. One scene in The Notorious Bettie Page shows a radiant Bettie ordering orange juice in a NYC bar (and being called a "square" by Lily Taylor, who runs the photography studio Bettie works for) being approached by a fan who clearly expects Bettie to be a cruel, domineering bondage queen, not the smiling, gracious person she really was.

Thankfully, the movie doesn't dig too deep into the psychological reasons why Bettie chose the career she did, though some horrific abuse and violence in her youth probably led to her detached approach to relationships and marriages, while throwing herself enthusiastically into erotic photos that featured her either alone or pretending to spank other women. And the movie ends with Bettie's decision to devote her life to God, though doesn't get into the mental breakdowns she suffered later in life (some details in this account of her life.)

Lily Taylor and Chris Bauer are especially great supporting actors as the brother/sister owners of a small-time smut shop who act as Bettie's surrogate family in NY. They don't seem to get the allure of 8-inch heels and whips any more than Bettie does, but are happy to provide their customers with what they want. They have a really cheerful, business-as-usual attitude in the photo shoot scenes, like, "OK Bettie! Time for your ball-gag!"

And as an added bonus, if you go see the movie at the Chelsea Clearview theater like I did, you might get a little handout from a guy who comes through the theater before the previews that says "Are you into fetish and kink?" and provides lots of helpful information about bondage-oriented club nights and parties around the city. Great tie-in! (ba-dum-bum)

categories: Movies
posted by amy at 9:34 AM | #

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