Coming from Mary Harron, the director who gave us American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol, a new film about 1950s pinup Bettie Page offers a fatally benign account of the devout Tennessee Christian who ended up, whip in hand, modeling topless in New York and Florida until an anti-pornography campaign put paid to her career in 1957 and sent her back into the arms of Jesus. More attuned to culture and history than psychology, Harron has always been a conceptual filmmaker. But while one hardly expects a conventional biopic from her, The Notorious Bettie Page’s arid fixation on period over character comes at a price.
As played by Gretchen Mol, whose natural radiance is all but drained of its animal energy by her vague, unfocused acting — the vacantly agreeable smile never leaves her doll-like features for long — Page comes across less as the free-spirited, instinctive bohemian Harron clearly means her to be than as a good-natured provincial noodle to whom life merely happens as she wanders from one potentially adverse situation to another, spinning dross into gold by accident. While it’s true that most of us make our way through life without a plan, the studied arbitrariness of Page’s accommodating ramble from Hicksville to Smutsville doesn’t make for thrilling cinema. In early scenes, Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner gamely try to set up young Bettie as a high-school debating star with her sights set on college, ??????yet, subsequently, she seems to lack all drive or ambition, stumbling from an inauspicious early marriage to a seemingly innocuous encounter on a Nashville street that ends in her being gang-raped. I can understand the reluctance to make that event a facile key to Page’s subsequent career. Yet it strains plausibility to ask us to believe that Page simply got up off her knees from this hideous incident — implied, in the movie’s few genuinely emotive scenes, with quiet horror — and waltzed off to New York, where, in between Stanislavsky acting classes, she agreed (nay, volunteered) to be photographed more and more wearing less and less for the benefit of stressed businessmen looking for a little escape from ’50s conformity.
Almost alone among women directors, Harron has built her career on an amused obsession with sexual and cultural radicalism, which she took to a perverse extreme with Christian Bale’s viciously out-of-control yuppie in American Psycho. Here, she has her work cut out, for notwithstanding the Bettie Page retro cult that has flourished on hot rods, coffee mugs and Web sites since the late 1970s, there’s no ignoring the fact that by current pinup standards, she cuts a pretty tame figure. The skimpy swimsuits and black bondage gear that brought her such notoriety in her time can now be found not only at your local Trashy Lingerie but on any fashion Web site, including our own at L.A. Weekly. They’re fun, but about as shocking to us now as a Playboy centerfold. For someone as naturally sensual as she’s made out to be, Page is shown having precious little sex of her own accord. And the smut purveyors with whom Page falls in (played by Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor and a very funny Jared Harris as the enchantingly named British erotic photographer John Willie) are portrayed as a bunch of sweethearts who, like some G-rated incarnation of the pornographers in Boogie Nights, give Page her only experience of a warm family life. That’s a cozy fantasy — and very likely nonsense.
Compensating with high style for the lack of kinky action, Harron’s juxtaposition of noirish black-and-white for New York with throbbing Sirkian color for Florida, where Page posed against nature for the photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), is as banal as it is beautiful. But the movie’s most fruitful idea — that Page’s bountiful sensuality was all of a piece with her simple-minded Christian belief, at least until the worthy Senator Kefauver (played by David Strathairn at his prissy dourest) set her straight in pornography hearings — is raised and then left to hang, untended, in midair. In a recent interview with The New York Times’ Karen Durbin, Harron let slip a telling tidbit almost as an afterthought. It seems that Page, who disappeared from public life after the hearings and, as she began to lose her looks, morphed into a religious fanatic, on one occasion held her husband and his children at knife point while she forced them to look at a picture of Christ for hours. Now that’s what I call gumption, but one looks in vain for the merest hint of such spirit, or Spirit, in The Notorious Bettie Page.
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE | Directed by MARY HARRON | Written by HARRON and GUINEVERE TURNER | Produced by PAMELA KOFFLER, KATIE ROUMEL and CHRISTINE VACHON | Released by Picturehouse Films | At selected theaters