Notorious Bettie Page, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Notorious Bettie Page is one good looking movie about one good looking dame. It tells of the career of '50s pin-up queen Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), who was the object of countless masturbatory fantasies in the pre-Playboy era. Despite being a straightforward bio-pic, The Notorious Bettie Page is more than just a tasty morsel of eye candy. The film takes a little time to explore the political landscape of the time, and features an Oscar-worthy lead performance.

The Notorious Bettie Page spans a period from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, following Bettie from when she's a teenager until her retirement from posing. It follows each stage of her career and re-creates some of her most famous shoots: glamor poses, bondage photos and movies, and nudes. It also shows the legal difficulties faced by photographers and distributors. Anything deemed as being "smut" (such as S&M) could not be sent through the mail. Pubic hair could not be shown. And pornography was viewed as a direct contributor to suicide, murder, and psychosis. (There may be some who believe this today.)

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) does a stellar job making this a visual feast. Interweaving stock footage with new material, she brings the '40s and '50s to life. The movie is shot almost entirely in black-and-white with one exception: scenes in sunny Florida are presented in Technicolor, and appear all the more vivid because of the noir look of the rest of the movie.

If Gretchen Mol had any reservations about baring all, they don't show on screen. Bewitching and lovely with long brown tresses, Mol looks achingly like Page, and the character's playfulness and love of life come through in all of the poses. There's more to Mol's work than parading around naked - she displays naiveté in some cases, not to mention sass and a sense of humor. Plus, she remains religious throughout, wondering what God thinks of her posing nude. (In the end, around 1957, Bettie stopped posing for pin-ups because she became a born-again Christian - although she claimed to be unashamed of her past.)

Those unfamiliar with Bettie's life might assume that this is another story of drink, drugs, and debauchery. It is not. Bettie did nothing to excess, and never engaged in promiscuous behavior. She did not equate nudity with sexuality, and one of her photographers remarked that "she can be nude without being naked." In her opinion, the pin-ups were to help those with "special needs," not to lead people into sin. The movie also doesn't shy away from darker topics - a sexual assault that occurred while Bettie was in her 20s is shown early in the movie (it's not graphic, but there's no doubt what is happening). And we see the unfortunate result of an ill-advised early marriage.

The Notorious Bettie Page is a delightful movie. Not only does it shine a spotlight on an American pop icon about which not a lot is known today, but it gives us a porthole into morality and livestyles of post-World War II America. Harron's directing and Mol's acting make this worth seeking out, even though it likely won't be opening in many multiplexes.

Notorious Bettie Page, The (United States, 2005)

Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor
Screenplay: Guinevere Turner, Mary Harron
Cinematography: Mott Hupfel
Music: Mark Suozzo
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1