The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page is a competent, tame, by-the-numbers, biopic. It is watchable, somewhat interesting, but not fully successful on any level.

It covers Page’s life from her teens to her 30s. She lived into her 80s, ergo a great deal is left out, but really it’s just meant to cover her career as a porn model.

The movie, set primarily in the 1950s, is in black and white. (By the way, contrary to what contemporary filmmakers seem to think, the 1950s and earlier decades did not take place in black and white. Movies and TV from that era were typically black and white, but that’s different. If you’re trying to make believe your movie was actually made in the 1950s, then yes, it makes sense for it to be in black and white. But if you’re making a movie, today, about the 1950s, there’s no reason, other than a silly gimmick, for it not to be in color. Otherwise it’s like making a movie about Medieval times and having it consist solely of two-dimensional looking still images because the artists of the time hadn’t yet mastered creating the illusion of depth.)

The film is uncritical of its title figure, bordering on the hagiographic. It is simplistic and superficial in structure.

For example, early in the film we see that Page came from an ultra-strict religious background, that she was in an abusive marriage when she was very young, and that she was gang raped. These scenes could be really harrowing, but they’re gotten out of the way quite quickly, and seem to be there just for the functional purpose of explaining psychologically how she ended up in porn. You know, the whole idea that only really messed up women whose self-esteem has been destroyed could work in a sex-related industry like that.

Except that that really doesn’t fit the rest of the film. (Even though there’s considerable truth to the notion that—as a rule of thumb—porn actresses and sex workers and such tend to be more emotionally messed up than average, more likely to have had an abusive past.) The movie is not anti-porn (at least not the really mild level of porn Page did), and indeed depicts the anti-porn folks as mildly ridiculous prudes.

Page is not portrayed as emotionally battered, low in self-esteem, gun shy about men and sex, embittered, or any of that as a result of what happened to her. She’s 95% as naïve as before all the bad stuff happened, and 100% as sweet-natured. She’s confident, and has a healthy, open attitude about her body and about nudity. She likes men just fine, and there’s no indication she’s messed up sexually.

Even when she eventually “gets religion” and quits the business, it’s made clear that this is more a product of her concern that she can’t model much longer due to age, and that insofar as it also relates to moral ambivalence about what she’s doing, it’s not so much that she’s experiencing guilt or having doubts herself as that she’s becoming aware that the negative attitudes of certain others in society can cause her some problems. Just to make sure we get that point, the movie ends with her responding to a question about her past by saying her present religiosity in no way implies a repudiation of her former career, that she in fact sees nothing wrong in what she did.

The movie is populated by caricatures, in an effort to play up the ways in which the time period was colorful and was different from the present. The preachers are fire-and-brimstone, the anti-porn crusaders strident, the Congressional investigators pompous, the pornographers and their clients comically innocent and eccentric compared to what we’d expect today.

The hairstyles, cars, bathing suits, etc. are all carefully crafted to be authentic. And it’s not that the people aren’t authentic. There were (and are) people like every one of the caricatures in the movie. But the focus is on these entertaining and extreme types precisely to give the movie the desired feel of being set in an entertainingly quaint and unsophisticated time so different from our own.

The movie’s whimsical, playful attitude toward sex and porn keep it from being very erotic. Certainly I have zero complaints about how lead actress Gretchen Mol looks with her clothes off, but as far as the bondage scenes and such, they intentionally feel more silly than anything. Whereas Secretary takes such matters at least somewhat seriously and shows some awareness of why S&M and such can be major turn-ons for a lot of people, here it’s treated as farce. For instance, all the scenes of whipping and spanking, instead of being believably fake on the level of professional wrestling or movie stunt men, are played for laughs as exaggeratedly bad acting where it doesn’t look remotely like they’re striking each other.

How successful is the film purely informationally? Mixed.

I knew virtually nothing about Bettie Page before seeing the movie, and certainly I know more now.

However, the movie is so intent on portraying Page as sweet and wonderful, and of showing how backward that era’s attitudes were about sex and porn and such, that it’s extremely selective in what it shows and how it shows it, making it of very limited value as history.

My ten minute perusal of biographical material on the Internet after seeing the film revealed that Page became a religious fanatic, remarried her abusive husband, suffered from major mental and emotional illness culminating in her spending several years in an asylum, and is alleged to have stabbed two people one of the times she went berserk. Which is no doubt a big reason the film ends where it does, when she was in her 30s. A fuller picture would have had to be a very different picture.

The film also does not address at all the cult status Page attained later in life. I gather she’s big with some gays, feminists, hipsters, etc. Is that purely some kind of camp or irony? Do they admire her substantively because of something having to do with her attitude about sex or porn? Was she somehow unusually empowered for her time, running her own porn career rather than being exploited by males doing so?

I have no idea. But I’d be curious why she’s been adopted as some kind of a mascot by certain subcultures.

So the movie does a pretty good job of placing us back in the ’50s, albeit a caricatured, oversimplified version of the ’50s; and it tells us quite a bit about the life of Bettie Page, though mostly it just skims along the surface of a decade or two of that life, not really giving us insight into who she was at a deeper level, or into her contemporary cultural relevance.

The title character of this movie is a likable, sympathetic figure, certainly a very lovely woman, with very good screen presence. Some of the supporting players are entertaining if a little goofy—e.g., Lili Taylor is sharp as usual. The production values are high; it’s a very professional, well-paced movie. Certainly there are far more unpleasant ways to spend an hour and a half.

But The Notorious Bettie Page is a lightweight approach to a subject that I have to think could have been tackled in a riskier, meatier, deeper way. So I can’t say this film is any better than OK in my opinion.

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