If The Notorious Bettie Page can be believed (and I have it on pretty good authority that it can), Bettie Page was an incredibly interesting person. Oddly, she was interesting in a somewhat simple, almost boring way. That’s odd if you know who she is. It’s also hard to film.
The name Bettie Page generally comes with a label. America’s First Sex Icon, The Biggest Pin-Up Girl In The Universe, or even Subject Of Senate-Hearing Scandal, and that’s just tipping the iceberg of what follows her name. You rarely see just Bettie Page, but that’s all she ever was. You want to call her simple, except that it is a description so filled with negative connotation these days. She was, nevertheless, not a complex person, but in a way that is more beautiful than complexity.
The film delivers this person in remarkable fashion. Bettie is not complex, and the film isn’t either, but they both exist in complex worlds. The movie delivers much of Bettie’s life by way of flashbacks, and lays out the world in a rather straightforward manner. Bettie was the victim of child molestation, later a gang rape, a pin-up girl, nude model, and eventually one subject in some sort of Senate hoohaa – but you’d never know any of it to look at her. A barrage of complexities surrounded her, including dealing with her boyfriend dealing with lots of men recognizing/oogling her, but all she seemed able to focus on was the fascinating simplicity of just being alive.
She posed for pin-ups as though she really couldn’t make out what the fuss was about, and moving on to nude shots meant little to her at all. When the high heels and ropes came out, it was just some gag to sell pictures. In a sense it practically was, because the people taking the pictures might as easily be the owners of a mom and pop bakery. None of it troubled Bettie, who was just making money to pursue acting. After all, God made my body, and made me good at posing for pictures. Something like that anyway.
The focus of the film, if it can really be viewed as having one, is the struggle of society’s views, and where Bettie fit into the whole mess. Two sides of a whole world of sex – those trying to abolish pornography, and those buying Bettie’s bondage reels (who are creepy) – both equally wrong, and both trying to make use of Bettie Page.
I don’t know if I would have chosen Mary Harron (who will always be a rock journalist to me) to direct this film, but she turns out to have been a wonderful choice. I can’t think of anyone who would have done a better job just letting this film be. Even this version is slightly too preachy, which is made worse because it’s hard to tell if the film knows what it’s preaching or what it should be preaching, but overall the film just flows out at you. Harron’s other biggish film, American Psycho, is brilliant for precisely the same reason this one is… well, sort of close to brilliant – it just displays the character. It doesn’t say anything about the character, it just puts it up there for you to digest. Of course, in American Psycho the character is saying something, but that’s different.
Unfortunately, The Notorious Bettie Page finds itself caught in a world much like the woman herself. One of Bettie’s photographers commented on how perfect she was as a model, because she could be nude without looking naked. There’s something to that, and it takes the kind of person who doesn’t blink at being tied up to really do nude. But people mostly want to spend their money on naked, even if they spend enough to buy things labeled “nude.”
The movie isn’t racy, despite its subject, and despite the fact that Gretchen Mol (naked or nude) takes her clothes off. It is simple and straightforward. It’s real, powerful, interesting, and entertaining. But, in the end, it’s still simple.
There are a lot ways you can be in this society of ours. Some are acceptable, and some are accepted. Some are applauded, and some are despised. Some groups are against this, and some groups are for that, and some groups are against other groups. But, if all you really have to say about your life is… “I just like life,” everyone gets together and kicks your ass.
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