The Notorious Bettie Page may be set in the 1950s, but filmmaker Mary Harron plainly intends to speak to our here and now. The story of model Bettie Page, an icon for her bangs and bondage photos, the film traces Page’s path from Tennessee schoolgirl, to big-city pinup, to her disappearance from the public eye. Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner actually began working on the Bettie project shortly after Harron’s debut feature, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and around the same time that Page herself transformed from mysterious cult figure to the subject of multiple literary biographies.
The film is framed by the 1955 Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency and pornography, which were effectively the beginning of the end of Page’s modeling career. And it’s in these scenes that The Notorious Bettie Page injects its stealthy contemporary critique, showing Page swept up in the attempts of others to project their own morality onto her. It’s difficult not to feel the echo of today’s debates over broadcast-decency standards on the airwaves, gay marriage or the notion of “traditional values” — something Harron and Turner felt themselves when developing the project.
“The parallels in American attitudes to sex then and now sort of became stronger and stronger,” recalled Harron on a recent promotional jaunt through Los Angeles. “Once the Bush administration came in it was kind of funny, it became much closer than it had been when we started.”
In many ways, Page’s ongoing mystique stems from the malleability of her image: prototypical rockabilly princess; sunny beach kitten (in the photos of Bunny Yeager); dark bondage queen (in the work of Irving and Paula Klaw); and the woman later persecuted into madness. Harron’s portrait triumphs in the way it allows all those Betties to co-exist by refusing to fall prey to the dime-store psychologizing of more conventional biopics. Whatever Bettie you go looking for, you can find her here.
“I think people have a problem sometimes with things that are not judgmental,” Harron says. “The classic biopic is a kind of melodrama, with the perils of this, the pitfalls of that. People rise high, they’re brought down and then they have to find redemption. I feel we were aware of that map and there were certain elements we couldn’t avoid. There also were elements we felt were contradictory and ambiguous in the way a real person’s life is. People’s lives don’t fit into narrative arcs.”
One of the toughest choices faced by Harron and Turner was simply deciding how much of Page’s life story to tell, and where to let the film end. Rather than push forward into Page’s lost years, they opted to stick with Page in the 1950s.
“The deeper you get into her story, the danger arises of making it a moralistic or a cautionary tale,” says Turner. “She did go off the deep end, as people do, and you do want to know what happened to her. But it became too simplistic — oh, that explains it, she was sexually abused, and then she wanted to take her clothes off all the time and then she went nuts. So we decided to leave that movie behind and focus only on her heyday. What’s the story behind the photographs we all know? And how does that reflect the era and the larger story about relationships to sex at that time? Using her as a springboard makes perfect sense.”
A surprising amount of The Notorious Bettie Page is given over to photo shoots and film sets, as Harron lovingly re-creates the imagery that made Page iconic and suggests that Page (an exuberantly riveting Gretchen Mol) was most herself, most alive, while performing for the camera. If Harron’s previous film, American Psycho, depicted the icy, distanced surfaces of the 1980s, The Notorious Bettie Page plays as an inviting nod to deceptively simpler times. Unfolding as vignettes of Americana, moving with the same dreamlike ease as the rolling narratives of the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, it’s a soothing tonic to our own contemporary moment of divisive finger-pointing, its message of open-minded tolerance so obvious and saccharine as to loop back around into subversive radicalism. This is perhaps best summed up by Paula Klaw, played by Lili Taylor (the shooter of Andy Warhol), as she shares with Page her own attitude toward the fetishists who buy the Klaws’ most outré work: “It takes all types to make a world.”
“It’s so interesting to see how much dark, hidden sexuality there always has been and always will be in American life,” says Harron. “And there will always be a conflict over trying to preserve appearances, preserve morality, preserve stability. It’s amazing how the culture is so obsessed with sex, but also so fearful.
“The reason people eternally go back to those images from the 1950s is it’s the charge, the potency, of oppression. It’s the last moment before it all went wrong, before Pandora’s box opened.”