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:: The Notorious Bettie Page

The mounting of a biopic depicting a cultural icon is always a minefield for filmmakers, particularly if that icon’s life has been well documented already. How do you put a fresh perspective on someone’s life when all an audience has to do is go to a bookshop or switch on their televisions to get the real story? Bettie Page was not a huge star, so that helps, but there are still hundreds – if not thousands – of books, photographs and videos dedicated to her curious mix of innocence and fetishism. Mary Harron, director of the excellent but flawed American Psycho, focuses on the simple facts of her life – her conservative upbringing in Tennessee, the gang rape she suffered as a teenager, her move to New York in the 1950’s where she became pin-up sensation – and seems no more interested in exploring the deeper issues than Bettie is in exploring why men want to see photos of her in knee high leather boots.

It’s an approach that charms and frustrates. For all the kooky charm and genuine warmth that Gretchen Mol exudes as Bettie, there is the nagging doubt that somewhere beneath the surface is a much more complex character. But that could just be wishful thinking, as nearly all other documented evidence suggests that in real life Bettie was indeed a sweet-natured person who, as photographer Bunny Yeager once described her, had a way of “being nude without looking naked.” That is, her beaming smile and joyful disposition, even when tied to a chair or flanked by jungle cats, gave her a charisma that the camera fell in love with.

It’s here that Mol does an outstanding job, recreating Bettie’s famous poses in a role that requires a tremendous amount of courage but also restraint. The temptation would have been to play sexy, but that would have missed the point. Bettie’s appeal comes primarily from her jubilant posing and endearing naivet√© about the industry that employs her.

In fact, the magazines Bettie poses for seem to be nothing more than humble mom ‘n pop operations that treat their models well and are just trying to make a living. There is friendly banter between Bettie and her employers even when she is being tied to a tree or locked in the boot of a car.

The recreation of some of Bettie’s amateurish S&M movies doesn’t approach anything near erotic, but they do provide some of the films biggest laughs. Even when they are dragged before a Senate inquiry investigating the corrupting influence of pornography, there is little in the way of social commentary from Harron, who lets events pass with little or no consequence. But I guess that’s not the point. What she’s done is craft a film that, like its subject matter, is beautiful to look at and effortlessly charming. For a career as short and ultimately as frivolous a Bettie’s, perhaps a deeper investigation was not required.