Sunday, 1 April 2007

The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Betty Page

Filmed mainly in black and white to recreate the atmosphere of 1950's New York, The Notorious Bettie Page tells the real life story of the woman who was 'the pin-up sensation that shocked a nation'.

Directed and co-written by Mary Harron who, aside from the wonderful American Psycho has worked mainly on television shows, the stylishly shot film received very luke-warm reviews on theatrical release. Based on the photographic evidence available the real-life Bettie Page certainly had legs, but can the same be said of the film that bears her name?

Gretchen Moll stars as 'The Notorious Bettie Page', the pin-up sensation that shocked a nation

The film opens with a visit to a seedy 'pin-up/nude magazine' store. An undercover detective uses discrete language to ask for some fetishistic bondage photo's and is offered a picture of Bettie Page wearing kinky boots and girdle. This is the cue for him to show his badge and grab all available evidence for an upcoming congressional hearing into pornography and sleaze. David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) plays the Tennessee senator who's effectively the presiding prosecutor, judge and jury in the hearings. The senator believes that the sort of pictures taken by the police pose more of a threat to America than drugs and Communism. The hearings serve as the introduction to what will be a long series of flashbacks devoted to telling Bettie Page's back story.

Page is a Christian girl who's had a strict upbringing in Nashville, Tennessee albeit with a sense of optimism and a certain flirty joie de vivre that she maintains despite some fairly traumatic experiences. There is a hint, albeit a single non-explicit one, that as a teenage girl she is be being sexually abused by her father. Protected from a long line of would-be courters by her controlling mother she leaps on the chance to escape when a forward young man manages to somehow evade her mother and ask her on a date, declaring to his best friend that he will marry her. The marriage materialises, but is short-lived when the new husband turns abusive, and Bettie escapes to New York with the hope of becoming an actress.

Jonathan M Woodward is Marvin, a 'Montgomery Clift lookalike' who becomes Bettie's boyfriend but struggles to cope with Bettie's perverse modelling work

More by accident than design she finds herself becoming a glamour model, and eventually meets husband and wife team, Paula and Irving Klaw who run a movie memorabilia shop but find that a sideline of selling glamour photos is more profitable. Bettie is soon asked to pose for photo's for special clients who want bondage photo's, and regarding it as all a game she is happy to oblige. Her popularity rises and the money comes in useful when the acting jobs fail to come through. At her acting class she meets Marvin, a "Montgomery Clift look-alike", and the two soon become an item. Marvin is a decent sort who never understands Bettie's modeling career, and eventually falls out with her when he finds some of her more kinky photo's abandoned by a fan who approaches her at a party, hoping she will dominate him! The Klaws are forced to burn their negatives and shut up shop after the congressional hearing, and Bettie is never called to testify, but disillusioned with her boyfriend and the attitude of people in general she turns back to Christianity and becomes an ambassador for the church.

The film presents Bettie as a good-hearted soul who sees no harm in the work she does. When asked how she can justify posing naked, given her belief in God, she refers to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, pointing out that they spent most of their time naked and that trouble only started when they started putting clothes on! Her positive energy, somewhat naive enthusiasm and ability to trust people despite some very bad early encounters (which include an abusive father, a wife-beating husband and a gang rape), have the potential to deliver a heart-warming story of a struggle against adversity. Unfortunately it's a potential that's never realised because once the early years are out the way in the first 20 minutes, there's little more to the story. The plot feels thin, and lacks the underlying core that will have the audience rooting for the heroine, or even forming any kind of bond with her.

Lili Taylor, last seen in 'Six Feet Under' plays Paula Klaw, one half of the husband and wife team who hire Bettie for photographic modelling work

Although the subject matter is potentially interesting, everybody involved in the porn game is one-dimenstional: uniformly nice, well meaning and incredibly bland. Bettie's motives, particularly given her strict upbringing, make no real sense, and this is compounded by the details given of her relationship with her only real close friend, Marvin. Marvin is a decent sort, who tolerates his girlfriend's modeling work until it becomes obvious that the sort of work she is doing is not 'normal' by any acceptable 1950's definition of the word. Not unreasonably he makes his feelings clear and is immediately rejected, with Bettie picking up a stranger on a beach walk before deciding that any relationship there is also doomed to failure. She discovers a late night church service and finds comfort there, deciding to give up her previous life and work for the Church. It's hard to identify with someone who has been so horribly abused, but when presented with a good man and salvation seems so determined to turn it down. The sudden transition to a life in the Church just doesn't ring true given what we've seen of her attitude to her work earlier in the film.

The film is stylish, and beautifully shot, perfectly evoking the mood of 1950's New York. The use of colour is sparse, but effective when used, highlighting the glamour of the rather innocent, by today's standards, pin-up magazines, and mimicking early Super 8 colour films. The acting, particularly from Gretchen Moll, is outstanding with an excellent supporting cast even in the minor roles. But the plot lacks substance, and the film never really takes off as a result. As the final credits roll after a light and breezy 90 minutes, one is forced to ask 'Why did someone think Bettie Page's life was interesting enough to form the basis of a film?'. The truth is that this is the sort of 'slutty girl with a heart of gold' story that's been told many times before, but usually as part of a much more important, forceful, and stronger story.

Chris Bauer is Irving Klaw who finds himself the victim of an anti-sleaze campaign by congressional senators

The transfer to DVD is excellent, with no flecks, specks or dust, although problems between different film/power ratings in the US and UK mean that some early motion scenes in the film are very jerky and unsettling if seen on a large screen. There's good use of period music, and the black and white cinematography is at times positively stunning. One problem this causes is that archive footage used to depict certain scenes sticks out like a sore thumb, being considerably softer and somewhat print-damaged compared with the new material.

Extra's include a commentary by the director, co-writers and leading actress, which is in some ways far more entertaining and informative than the main feature itself. Unfortunately there's no Making of as such, although there is about 35 minutes of roughly-edited interviews with four different members of the cast and crew. There's also a two-three minute short 'titillation' colour film featuring the original Bettie Page herself, together with the original trailer.

The film is worth a rental, if only for the stylish cinematography and Moll's excellent performance. But it's not really a keeper and while Bettie Page certainly had legs, unfortunately the film bearing her name doesn't!

Naive innocent or practical victim? The viewera are left to make up their own minds

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