The Notorious Bettie Page opens in 1955, as a conservatively dressed Bettie Page (Mol) waits anxiously outside a U.S. Senate chamber. Inside, Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) holds court, pontificating on the evils of (soft-core) pornography and the deterioration of American values. As head of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, Kefauver hopes to shutdown the purveyors of pornography through either public shaming or legal action. As Bettie waits for her turn in front of the subcommittee, she slips into a reverie (cue flashback).
1936, Nashville, Tennessee. A young Bettie Page (Molly Moore) sits restlessly in church, making eye contact with a local boy. Her conservative, religious mother disapproves of any contact with boys, but that doesn’t stop Bettie from posing provocatively for photographs after the church service ends. Flash-forward to 1942, a studious Bettie meets another local boy. They date, they marry, and almost as quickly, they divorce. An unhappy, dissatisfied Bettie leaves Nashville for New York City, where she hopes to succeed as an actress.
To make ends meet, Bettie begins to pose semi-nude for private camera clubs (camera clubs allow men with interests in photography to pay a fee to take photographs of semi-nude models). Bettie’s exhibitionist nature takes her past semi-nude posing into nude photography, pin-ups, and eventually, into posing for bondage connoisseurs in photos and on film, thanks to mail-order pioneers, Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) and her brother, Irving (Chris Bauer). Bettie continues posing for marginally more respectable “men’s” magazines, including Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. Her boyfriend, Marvin (Jonathan M. Woodward), has only limited knowledge of Bettie’s extracurricular activities.
As Bettie’s acting career stalls, her living as a pin-up model continues to be lucrative, but it’s her blissfully unaware participation in the bondage shoots that ultimately threatens to Paula and Irving’s lucrative mail-order business. Which leads us back to where we began, with Bettie Page waiting for her turn to testify in front of the senate subcommittee. What little tension exists up to that point dissipates quickly, leading Bettie to contemplate the next step in her personal journey.
While the time period and the general subject matter is interesting in and of itself, making a biographical film about a presumably iconic demands more than a series of episodic scenes constructed around Bettie posing character posing for a series of increasingly risqué shots that end with S&M role-playing. Working from her own screenplay, The Notorious Bettie Page has neither a compelling central character driven by goals or conflicts nor an engaging storyline constructed around a compelling character with a satisfying emotional arc.
Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) and Guinevere Turner's screenplay shows us Bettie Page's outer life, but what about her inner life? From the early scenes, we gather that Bettie Page had some exhibitionistic tendencies, was probably sexually abused, physically assaulted by her first husband, and sexually assaulted at least once. Bettie's character arc stretches from wide-eyed, trustful naiveté to a minimal self-awareness created by external conflict (e.g., the Senate hearings) rather than introspection. There is one exception, though, which plays into the unsatisfying denoument, Bettie's strained conflict with her upright religious upbringing in the Deep South, evident in her occasional visits home and in a conversation with a secondary character, John Willie (Jared Harris), to bring the conflict to the foreground. We know that Bettie is self-reliant, independent, adaptable, and wants to become a successful actress, but these are shallow elements of characterization.
In short, The Notorious Bettie Page will leave viewers with a handful of superficial insights into a specific time period (the 1950s) and place (New York City and Miami), but not much else. After more than ninety minutes, we don't get closer to understanding Bettie than we did five or ten minutes into the film's running time. What The Notorious Bettie Page does have, though, is Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page, a sublimely beautiful, talented actress whose presence in the film partially makes up for story and character deficiencies. For some viewers, that might be enough. For most, including this reviewer, it's not. Mol deserves better (and so do we).
© Mel Valentin, 14th April, 2006
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