Times Square, 1955. A shifty looking fellow casts his eye over shelves of ‘glamour’ magazines before working up the courage to ask the shopkeeper if beneath the counter there is something a little different, “with unusual material that shows restraint”. No sooner has the shopkeeper obliged with a pamphlet entitled ‘Betty [sic] Page in Bondage’ than he finds himself arrested in an undercover sting operation.
Cut to Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, railing against the “insidious filth” of such “pornographic literature”, and a priest suggesting that it is a far greater threat to the nation’s moral fabric even than communism (and this is the fifties, remember, when reds were feared to be under every bed). Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), “pin-up girl of the universe”, sits alone outside, waiting to be called in to testify, and as she whiles away the time reading a letter from her sister Goldie back home, her thoughts drift to her Nashville childhood, and the sequence of events that brought her to where she is now…
From The Aviator, to Ray, from Kinsey to Walk the Line, these days biopics tend to follow a tried and tested formula wherein the subject is shown developing an extraordinary talent while grappling with personal demons rooted in a troubled childhood. Right from its opening sequence, The Notorious Bettie Page looks set to travel the same tired old trajectory, but then writer/director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) takes things in a different direction altogether, and the result is a subtle, understated study of a complex individual. This is “material that shows restraint” indeed, but in a rather different sense from what was meant by the detective in the prologue.
To be sure, the young Bettie has her fair share of traumatic experiences – sexually abused by her father, beaten by her soldier husband and gang-raped by strangers – but all these are presented with such oblique economy that it is never clear to what degree they should be regarded as influencing her subsequent life. Far from offering the sort of Freud-lite, daddy-made-me-do-it oversimplification that typifies other biopics, these scenes serve rather to establish male predatory behaviour as a ‘norm’, thus calling into question the supposed ‘perversion’ of Bettie’s later, far more harmless admirers.
Once Bettie reaches New York and is ‘spotted’ by a photographer at Coney Island, she is quick to become a star of glamour magazines and saucy postcards, thanks to her good looks, her palpable sense of fun and her comfort with nudity. Yet her true talents lie in the underground fetish scene, where she befriends sibling photographers Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor) and their decadent director John Willie (Jared Harris). Whether dressed in thigh boots and brandishing a whip, or trussed up and gagged, Bettie is never portrayed as an exploited victim, but rather as a willing performer in costume, enjoying herself as much as she entertains others, in an activity little different from dramatic stage-acting (something Bettie also practises, if with less success). And throughout, much to Willie’s bemusement, she remains a devout Christian, seeing her ability to make men happy as a gift from God.
As Bettie sits and reminisces outside the Senate hearing, narrative convention dictates that the past must catch up with the present and that everything is leading to Bettie’s appearance before the hostile Subcommittee to answer their accusations. Yet in a stunning piece of misdirection from Harron, no such dramatic dnouement ever in fact comes about. Instead, Bettie is sent home without testifying, and the viewer is left to realise that everything which has preceded represents a far more eloquent response to the Senator’s and priest’s bombastic charges than anything which might have been said in some melodramatic courtroom speech. The lack of a triumphalist conclusion will inevitably disappoint some, but it enables the film to sidestep clich in showing an issue (censorship), not to mention a life, too complicated for any pat resolution.
Shot mostly in black-and-white, with a few scenes in rather lurid colour, The Notorious Bettie Page deploys a range of visual styles that cleverly mimic the filmstocks and photographic materials available at the time when it is set, making it a real treat for the eyes. Though certainly a nostalgic piece, the film does not attempt navely to suggest that the fifties were somehow more innocent than our own times, preferring instead to focus on Bettie’s own rather peculiar innocence – and Mol, who for a while seemed to have disappeared entirely from our screens, makes an extraordinary comeback here, bringing to the iconic yet contradictory pin-up girl the one quality that all good biopics need: life.