A recent New York magazine cover story suggested that "Pornography is the new wallpaper." Sexual images, formerly taboo and titillating, have become so common in the arts, the Internet and public discourse that they're practically decorative.
Our culture has become so desensitized to erotica that the context of The Notorious Bettie Page at first seems as alien as the Dark Ages. Writer/director Mary Harron's deceptively breezy biopic of "The Pin-Up Queen of the Universe" begins at a Times Square adult book store of a half-century ago, where men's magazines with titles like Wink and Titter occupy the shelves. A customer, dying of embarrassment, asks if the vendor has any material with leather boots, and possibly something with more "restraint" (and he's not referring to modesty). Look in your spam filter right now and you'll see ads for stuff that the 1950s smut consumer could never dream of -- offered with complete privacy and anonymity.
Harron provides a snapshot of Bettie Page's career as would-be actress, "bondage queen" and cult figure with a light touch and complex attitudes. Harron previously directed I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, showing a flair for exploring extremes of gender politics. If The Notorious Bettie Page's peppy style sets audiences at a distance from its heroine's sexploits, actress Gretchen Mol's sensitivity bridges the gap.
The Notorious Bettie Page unfolds primarily in sleek, seedy black-and-white, comparable to 1950s noir flicks like Sweet Smell of Success or high school cautionary tales. Page's early life in Tennessee turns out to be a study of male oppression, and the pretty, book-smart girl suffers sexual abuse from her father, physical abuse from her first husband, and a group assault from a gang of men in a brief but harrowing incident.
Harron doesn't turn Page's career into a tale of victimization, however. She moves to New York and the more clothes she takes off, the more empowered she becomes. She models for private "photography" clubs and blossoms under the attention of nervous amateur shutterbugs. Page's casual exhibitionism leads her to fetish photographers Irving Klaw and his half-sister, Paula (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, equally funny). Despite their illicit profession, the Klaws provide a surrogate family: On meeting Bettie, Irving first offers her a brisket sandwich, then a pair of pumps with impossibly high heels.
Page had "it," a photographic quality that resists being put into words. Like Marilyn Monroe, Page's images have a tactile impression -- as if you could reach out and touch her just from looking at a two-dimensional photo. Mol superbly replicates the way Page's personality comes through her modeling work. In her early photo shoots, she's amusingly self-conscious and silly when she tries to look "pert" or "haughty," but becomes more confident and playful the more popular she becomes.
Mol also takes witty advantage of the irony of playing a devout Christian who doesn't drink alcohol, but blithely turns herself into an icon of, to say the least, unusual sexual fantasies. At one point during a shoot, she objects to the foul language of photographer John Willie (Jared Harris) -- at least, she objects as much as she can, considering that she's bound hand and foot with a ball gag in her mouth. The film also touches on the free speech and hypocrisy issues of The People vs. Larry Flynt when people freak out at the sight of Page's pubic hair, and Page wonders what all the fuss is about since Adam and Eve were naked.
The film makes a framing device of the subcommittee hearings on pornography from Sen. Estes Kefauver (Good Night, and Good Luck's David Strathairn). Kefauver's concerns come across as laughably overwrought, but Harron appreciates the questions raised by Page's life experience. Is it wrong for people to indulge their kinks? Paula Klaw declares, "It takes all kinds to make a world," and Page's fans and fetishists seem harmless compared to the thugs who brutalized her. At the Kefauver hearings, a distraught dad blames pornography for his son's death and while Harron may not agree with this view, at least she gives it a forum.
But should models collaborate in kinky material? At first, Bettie finds using corsets and riding crops to be confusing but harmless fun, a kind of playacting that's less challenging than her Stanislavsky classes. In re-creations of grainy 16 mm films, the bondage and battery clearly come across as phony. But other images prove degrading and unpleasant, and Bettie finds her participation harder to shrug away. What would Jesus say?
Vibrant, old-fashioned color occasionally splashes across the film, in Bettie's magazine covers and visits to sunny Miami. The Notorious Bettie Page implies that there's something more wholesome about her straight-up nude photos from Florida. Along with the bouncy songs by Esquivel and Peggy Lee, The Notorious Bettie Page often comes across as a liberating romp, anticipating the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
A more conservative filmmaker, however, could direct the same script, word for word, and turn it into the anti-pornography tract. It turns out the moral of Bettie Page's life lies in the eye of the beholder.
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