Frustratingly superficial but endearing biopic of the 1950s pin-up queen, mostly worth a look for Gretchen Mol’s irresistible and exuberant performance.
I vaguely remember Gretchen Mol being hyped as the next It Girl in the late 90s, when she appeared in Rounders with Matt Damon and Edward Norton. Then, as it often happens, the hype died down and she sank into obscurity, before her film career was briefly reignited by the acclaimed turn as Bettie Page. You can definitely see why this 2005 movie got Mol talked about again: though it doesn’t dig too deeply beyond the surface, Mol is absolutely mesmerising and seems to effortlessly channel Page’s enduring appeal and the sheer joy she took in posing for pictures. It was an onscreen transformation that nobody saw coming, for sure.
Shot primarily in retro black-and-white with some cheerful splashes of colour later on, the movie opens in 1955 with a dour-faced senator (David Strathairn) holding hearings on pornography. Then it rewinds to introduce us to Bettie, a devout Christian young woman growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. She eventually winds up in New York with ambition of becoming an actress, and falls into modelling by chance after an amateur photographer spots her at the beach.
With her hair restyled into her now-iconic bangs, Bettie’s pictures get increasingly more risque, going from lingerie shots to nude nature photography, to working for a brother/sister team of entrepreneurs specialising in fetish and bondage photos and films. Nowadays, you’d probably find more explicit imagery in your Windsor Smith billboard, but back in the day it was the hush-hush stuff of the secret underground world. Bettie achieves a sort of stardom with her work, but how will this mesh with her personal relationships and acting aspirations?
According to the movie, Bettie’s attitude to posing in her birthday suit, or while dressed in kinky leather corsets and thigh-high boots, was amazingly uncomplicated and didn’t clash in the least with her Christian upbringing. If God gave her a gift for posing, then she was obviously meant to use it, and if it displeased Him she’d be sure to receive a sign. Her pictures are still striking today for their complete lack of shame or self-consciousness, and for their unbridled sense of fun and enjoyment. The movie also extends this cheerful happy-go-lucky view to Bettie’s employers, who are portrayed as endearing outsiders just out to cater to some more unusual interests and needs, and lovably seedy characters such as the photographer John Willie, played by Jared Harris.
Unfortunately, as a film The Notorious Bettie Page never really finds its footing. It recounts Bettie’s life in the way of counting beads on a string, with one event just happening after another after another after another. Harrowing episodes such as sexual assault and a marriage that turns abusive pass on the screen without any real dramatic impact. For all of Mol’s excellence, the film is just too detached for its own good, ultimately leaving Bettie an enigma. It also shies away from tackling her dark post-pin-up struggle with depression and paranoid schizophrenia, opting to end with her conversion to evangelical Christianity.
So, a mixed bag of a movie, but I still enjoyed this look at one of pop culture’s iconic figures who continues to influence, inspire and fascinate today.
P.S. It may not be Bettie Page level of legendary, but I really do miss my fringe. I had one professional haircut this entire year, in between the two lockdowns.