Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On "The Notorious Bettie Page" (2005)

In  The Notorious Bettie Page, the charismatic 1950s pin-up model innocently says, "I'm not ashamed.  Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, weren't they?  When they sinned, they put on clothes."  How the camera loved her!  Page was a sexy kitten with a whip in girlie magazines that were hot stuff in their day.  She combined that kitten with a whip erotica persona with a sunny girl next door personality.
Gretchen Mol is so very good as Bettie in this very satisfying bio pic.  It's a gem of a performance in an under-noticed film.  Mol plays Bettie as a voluptuous young woman who, yes, may be posing in her panties -- or less.  But don't be surprised if you discover that she carries a Bible in her purse.  If anyone had the right to go through life angry, it was Bettie Page.  Her father was abusive.  She was a rape victim.  She was poor. But she seemed to leave the South and relocate to Manhattan with a Christian spirit of "Be kind" in her heart and a refreshingly healthy attitude towards sex in her mind.  Nonetheless, conservative politicians felt that her photos could lead to the downfall of a nation.  She had to appear before the Senate.  Fully dressed.
The raven-haired beauty had a love affair with the camera in poses that are, by today's standards, innocent.  Her outfits were scandalous then.  That attire was just another day at the office, if you will, for Madonna in her 1980s music videos.  For all the stripping and undressing in this appealing film, the biggest revelation is the performance given by  Gretchen Mol.  In the 1990s, Mol was the "It" girl for a month or so.
But the blonde's movie career didn't seem to get a big upgrade even after she made the cover of a top magazine like Vanity Fair.  In the following decade, she did the actor's task.  She made her own luck.  She got a meeting/audition for a role many Hollywood execs probably would not consider her to play, based on her looks.  She showed the folks who do the casting that she could be a serious contender.
Mol reinvented herself and made the role her own.  Initially, the director and writer of The Notorious Bettie Page didn't want to meet with Mol because she had the magazine cover image of the actress in her head.  Canadian Mary Harron directed the 90-minute feature.
In an interview, Harron admitted that she didn't want to test Mol for the lead role until Mol appeared for their meeting.  She came styled with a 1950s attitude and hair like the film's character.  Mol went the extra mile to make a visual impression.  Very wise.  As a performer, you can't leave it all to an agent or a manager.  If you're lucky enough to have representation.  You have to show industry folks how to cast you.  Mol did her homework, changed her look and became the "It" girl for that project.
In 1999-2000, I hosted a weekly New York cable TV show called Metro Movies with Bobby Rivers.  I loved doing that show and working with that crew.  We weren't cancelled.  The entire channel was switched to an all-sports format.  Our show was a hit in Manhattan with independent filmmakers because we gave a lot of attention to up-and-coming or not-widely-publicized indie filmmakers.  We were never at a loss for program material there in New York.  If I had a project like that today, I'd salute Women Directors for one whole show.  Or two.  In March, I blogged on "Women in the Director's Chair."  Add filmmaker Mary Harron to that list.  She also directed Christian Bale in American Psycho co-starring Reese Witherspoon and Willem Dafoe.  BBC News reported this week that a stage musical version of American Psycho, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is in the works.  The songs will be supplied by Duncan Sheik.
Bettie Page became a mysterious pop culture media star.  She quit the pin-up trade and apparently had a quiet simple life with her Bible.  She passed way in 2008 at age 85.  It's reported that the former sex icon did see Mary Harron's feature film and liked it very much.  The pin-up legend's friend, Hugh Hefner, held a private screening for her and a few other guests.  Ms. Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page is worth a weekend rental.  Page was a fascinating character.  Gretchen Mol gives a fascinating performance.


  1. Great review of an excellent movie. Gretchen Mol killed it, and Mary Harron made a compelling story out of Bettie's life, and respected her privacy.
    Mol is a beautiful woman, and she is naked for a lot of screen time. It's to her and Harron's credit that it does not come off as stroke material. Not to say you couldn't use it for such, if so inclined. Her comfort with nudity drains the prurience out of it, and you begin to feel like Adam and Eve, or better yet... a member of a less Puritan society, where nudity is natural.

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