THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE
Director: Mary Harron; Stars: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Lili Taylor
Icon Home Entertainment (18)
Mary Harron’s biopic about the fetish world’s most beloved icon was a long time coming, but it’s been worth the wait.
Released theatrically and on region 1 DVD in 2006, it has finally (as of March 19) been released on DVD in the UK with the same extras as the US version. When I originally reviewed the film for my blog site FetishDayz, I gave it four stars, but the extras are enough to earn the DVD a fifth star.
I’ve now watched the movie itself several times in different circumstances. It handles repeat viewing well, and I stand by my original contention that you could not ask for a more charming and affectionate portrayal of the Bettie Page legend. But while Bettie is the story’s central character, the film is as much a comment on the sexual mores of 1950s America as a whole, and the belief, specifically, that the spread of fetish imagery would deprave the nation.
Director Harron (of American Psycho fame) co-wrote the screenplay with Preaching To the Perverted star Guinevere Turner, herself a longtime Bettie fan. It spans Page’s seven-year modelling career in 1950s New York, focusing mainly on the period 1952-55 when she would become America’s top glamour model and queen of its underground fetish and bondage photo scene.
Gretchen Mol as Page is an inspired piece of casting, perfectly conveying the blend of naivety, sincerity and childlike enthusiasm that allowed this deeply religious girl from Nashville, Tennessee to plunge herself, apparently without moral qualms, into the strange new world of post-war pervery.
Although the brief opening glimpse of her earlier life reveals that the young Bettie was abused by her father and was later the victim of a gang-rape, the film avoids the easy conclusion that her subsequent choice of career was entirely the result of these experiences. In fact the young Bettie is shown as an aspiring actress who took drama lessons in Greenwich Village, fell into glamour modelling by chance, and saw her subsequent work as a fetish and bondage model for Irving Klaw’s Movie Star News photo agency as little more than paid acting practice.
This is the version of history told by Bettie Page herself. Having accepted it, the movie does a fair job of making it seem credible that someone like her could portray damsels in distress and dominatrixes with such panache without apparently having any personal interest in the subject matter. Many modern fans of the cult queen really don’t want to believe this, but the evidence for it is too substantial to dismiss.
With the exception of brief full-colour episodes set in Miami, where Bettie was shot in colour by glamour photographer Bunny Yeager, The Notorious Bettie Page is filmed in black and white, which adds greatly to the atmosphere, allowing the seamless integration of carefully faked and authentic period footage.
The film has great fun bringing to life some of the most familiar Bettie images by restaging the photo shoots that produced them, with Mol captured in identical poses. Harron has even lovingly recreated some of the jerky black and white 8mm film shorts that Bettie and her fellow fetish models made for Klaw — portrayed here by Chris Bauer as a decent guy who just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the new post-war interest in fetish imagery surfaced.
Klaw’s sister Paula (played with a fine sense of character by Lili Taylor) did most of the photography as well as tying up Bettie and the other girls. A number of Paula’s familiar anecdotes about the job have been neatly incorporated into the storyline, including the revelation that she frequently had to make the girls wear several layers of underwear to avoid falling foul of obscenity laws.
It all seems so harmless, but this didn’t prevent the Klaws’ business being targeted by the era’s moral crusaders. When Irving Klaw was made to appear before a Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency in 1955, it signified the beginning of the end for him, and also for Bettie’s modelling career. Ironically, this was the same year that she famously graced the Christmas cover of new men’s magazine Playboy.
Bettie is shown at the very beginning, and near to the end of the story waiting outside the Senate hearing to be called to give evidence. As it turned out she never was called, but apparently those events affected her deeply, and the movie ends in 1957 with her departure from modelling and her return to the bosom of the church.
The Notorious Bettie Page doesn’t add that much to what is already in the public domain about its subject’s life — possibly because Page herself was contractually prevented from collaborating with the filmmakers — and shows us very little of the private person behind the pictures. But it does strive more than most American biopics for an accurate retelling of the known facts.
This is clear to anyone familiar with her story. But it is also confirmed by the superb extras’ commentary provided by Harron, Mol and Turner — the feature that earned this DVD its fifth star.
With directors’ commentaries, you don’t always know if you’re going to get a genuine insight into the film-making process or just a self-indulgent tour of the auteur’s ego. Here, it’s definitely the former. We’re treated to a fascinating combination of analysis, explanation and behind-the-scenes detail that anticipates just about every question you might have had about the issues and creative processes involved in bringing Bettie to life on the screen.
Even without the commentary, anyone familiar with the Movie Star News output will recognise the effort that went into the recreation of the clothes and fetish accoutrements in the original imagery. It’s no exaggeration to say that fans of vintage fetish garb will be salivating over the attention to detail in all the areas that really matter — the lingerie, the corsets, the stockings, the gloves and the high heels. What more pleasurable proof could there be of the value placed on authenticity here?
Inevitably, though, some invention was required for dramatic effect, and the plot’s most obvious departure from truth is in its staged conversations between Page and legendary bondage artist John Willie (Jared Harris). There is scant evidence that Willie was ever involved in any of Bettie’s shoots for Klaw, and Mary Harron admits that the Willie character was “boosted” in the story so the writers could include a significant dialogue about Bettie’s motivations. It may not have happened this way, but Harris’s slightly louche and worldly wise portrayal of Willie makes his character’s attempts to probe Bettie’s sexuality seem entirely credible.
Nothing in this film could be called pornographic. I imagine the only reason it has an 18 certificate is some unabashed full frontal nudity from Gretchen Mol. It’s hard to imagine that any of the bondage or spanking games shown here could upset a modern censor. However racy it was considered back in the ’50s, it’s all terribly tame by modern standards. Which is sort of the point.
Other extras on this DVD include the theatrical trailer, around 17 minutes of video interviews with Mary Harron, Gretchen Mo, Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer, and a short piece of footage of Bettie herself. This last item, entitled Presenting Bettie Page, and shot on good quality colour film, shows what looks like a screen test in someone’s office. She undresses slowly down to stockings, pouting occasionally as she goes, but without the exaggerated body language that seems to characterise most other movie footage of her. This is Bettie as alive and natural and timelessly beautiful as we’ve ever seen her, but also — because there is no sound on this short piece of film — with her enigma preserved.
Ultimately it’s really the enigma of this cult figure, rather than her alleged notoriety, that The Notorious Bettie Page celebrates. That, and an era when dressing-up games with lingerie, high heels and lengths of rope were considered infinitely more corrupting than images of ‘ordinary’ sex. TM
(Expanded and updated from a review originally published in FetishDayz, July 2006)