The Notorious Bettie Page
Black stiletto heels, corsets and whips are among the fantasies whitewashed in Mary Harron's would-be biography, The Notorious Bettie Page, a deliberate bleach job (co-written with Guinevere Turner) that leaves the titular pin-up shorn of her sexuality—and sexuality itself shorn of its delights. Despite the many nude images of stand-in Gretchen Mol, which some may well appreciate for their pertness and their frequency, the film is remarkably light on sensuality. The girl next door with the ball-gag twinkle becomes in Harron's able hands a ninny of the lowest order in muted-blonde turned dirty-girl brunette. Bettie's trademark fake ferocity (Time Magazine tells us that no one called her “Page”) is transformed into goofy giddiness. The peek-a-boo wink and kittenish smile sold out for a silly mask. Cold plasticine cluelessness replaces divine decadence as the overall impression. Harron's gift has been to take jagged-edged subjects and file down the burrs just enough so that we forget to recoil—to lure us into deviant consciousness with a nod to its narcissism and sympathy for its imbalance. It was thus she successfully managed the madness of Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and kept Bret Easton Ellis's Bateman in check (American Psycho). But the filmmaker seems rather less sure of her footing with the fringe-haired icon of 50s fetishism. And so her biopic is a total mess, constructed of contradictions, lacking in internal logic, and ultimately, profoundly, dishonest.
Oddly judgmental and subtextually preachy, The Notorious Bettie Page is framed with retro-mockery—scoffing both at the audience that appreciates pornography and the government that does not. Frames made of backward glances (with current nudge-nudge meaningfulness) photographed both literally and figuratively in black and white.
It opens with a Dragnet style didacticism cum cinematography filtered through the supercilious air of a George Clooney worldview. Pathetic trolling men in trench coats, tongues practically lolling, shuffle shamefacedly around a Times Square shop that markets spreads of naked women—and worse. Approached by a gentleman with the quickened breaths and near drool of an addict in dire straits, the man at the register darts his eyes back and forth like a B-movie dealer before taking out the secret stash: women in lace-up boots and other, ahem, restraints. Bettie Page, black-clad and bawdy, one imagines. The customer sputters with delight, and then he flashes a badge. It's the 1950s. Of course. Kinkiness and deviance are on trial. Flash to the hallowed halls of Washington D.C. , where Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (a holier-than-though David Strathairn fresh from his turn at Murrow smugness) is inquiring into the harms and detriments of comic books and girlie pics and the suicides of young men they lead astray. Bettie Page, again, we note, though here white-gloved and proper as she awaits her turn to testify. Between the two Betties, a film of reductivist reimaginings.
Let us not be duped, besides, by the self-satisfied whiggery that takes as a given today's superiority over yesterday, there's something in the Harron/Turner screenplay that buys into the indictments of that other time—it just wags its finger elsewhere. Never mind the ostensible pro-fem celebration of the cover girl's comfort in her skin—her empowerment through disrobing; The Notorious Bettie Page is first and foremost a condemnation of pornography. It struggles with a nominal feminist's cognitive dissonance—if woman as object is bad, what to make of the woman Subject who objectifies herself? —and finds its resolution in revisionism and hairsplitting to a degree once reserved for the Oval Office.
First, it lays the blame on men. It is men who take the sweet-natured, full-bodied, Christian woman child we're given as Bettie Mae Page and turn her into their darkest temptations. The men who rape her, the men who beat her, the men who exploit her for their pleasures, and the men who condemn her for their consciences. Powerless is she to their vilest tendencies, victimized by her good looks and her easy trusting nature. The screenplay and the shorthand direction (e.g., a father invites his daughter upstairs for a minute, a husband stagily slaps his wife) avoid sensationalism, relying on our pre-prepped social consciousness to know what evil lurks in masculine minds (and as the film would have it, disgusting minds they are—violent, possessive, domineering, and phallicly charged to the point of filth). You can almost hear the filmmakers tsking as they wash their hands compulsively, over and over again.
There are women agents of the flesh, as well, but they are exempt from denunciation. Forerunners of Harron herself, they act only out of artistic commitment and respect for the all kinds it takes to make a world. I kid you not. Sarah Paulson's Bunny Yeager is made deliberately sexless, disdainful of prurience even as she poses a feral feline Bettie between (what else?) two real life feline predators. And Lili Taylor plays Paula Klaw, the sister half of the brother/sister team that gave Bettie her first boots, with such a gentle maternal air she could be dressing her for fifth grade class photo. If in contrast with the other men, Paula's brother, Irving (Chris Bauer), the King of the Pinup, is portrayed more as zhlubby (the first thing we see him do is offer her a sandwich) than as villainous, this appears to be a cinematic castration to make him worthy of an ooh or ach when Kefauver's hearings bring him down. (The forces of pornography are bad, no doubt, but the forces of anti-pornography are worse. The filmmakers want it both ways.)
In the alternative, the film pleads—like any good defense attorney—that if the blame does not lie with men, then there is no blame at all. Autonomous though Bettie is, and though historical records show that she perfected her “It” factor to a tease (it's reported that she even made her own outfits), Harron and Turner would have her bear no responsibility for her choices. Their portrayal works overtime to differentiate disingenuously her unclothed body from its sexual implications, insisting on Bunny Yeager's tossed off soundbyte distinguishing between naked (bad) and nude (good). That this is belied by the good girl/bad girl duality that Bettie's purveyors banked on (“lust in an ice cream cone,” Harlan Ellison called her), is something they do not address. While the men who surround the free-spirited model go goggle-eyed at the hint of a pubic hair, the film has her claim Edenic, if unwitting, righteousness in the reveal, reminding others that it was only after they had sinned that Adam and Eve put on clothes. The Notorious Bettie Page would have us believe that the woman who made a name by stirring up men's whispered-secret hankerings simply missed the raunchier implications of her bindings and her bends. If she naughtily embraces her own naked form here, it's with all the deep thoughtfulness of an over-ample Barbie doll whom others twist and turn for their amusement. Not only does she lack complicity in Harron's portrait; she lacks comprehension.
Intermittently, we learn that Bettie wants the images hidden from the folks back home, that she does not share them with the men in her life—or admit to those men that she knows what they make of her (It's just costumes, she says), and that sometimes she fears Christ's retribution for her sins, but the screenplay does not reconcile this consciousness with its claims about the character. Instead, it pretends that the paradox is part of what makes Bettie an enigma, as oft she was reputed to be, and leaves it hanging out there to prepare us for its moral conclusion—Bettie's (re)conversion to a missionary position.
The film makes of this conversion, its coda, a return for the fetishist to Christian form—looking for a place to dance, Bettie wanders into a church and is reborn in Christ (buttoning up is a sign of her redemption)—though the timing suggests it was more likely response to Federal inquiry and its wake that spurred her rebirth, and the subsequent history suggests a darker reality. If the accounts of unauthorized biographer Richard Foster (The Real Bettie Page, Citadel Press, 1997) are correct (Bettie apparently disputes them, along with supporters like Hugh Hefner and Harlan Ellison), Christianity was the face she gave to the madness she grew into, more scandalous than any photo for which she ever posed. Asked once to wait in the patrol car during an incident investigation in which she stood accused, she was found by the returning officer in a compromising position, making use of a hanger he had left there; “defendant psycho,” he allegedly reported. By late midlife, she was heard to be reciting what sounded like gospels into a recording device, professing her belief in not one, but seven gods. On various occasions, the police found her brandishing pistols and knives in the name of Jesus, threatening husbands and step-children (wed three times after the film's legend closes, once as a second-go-round with husband number one, she was four times divorced), and stabbing neighbors—in one case, actually slicing a woman's face mouth to ear before plunging a bread knife repeatedly into her chest and hand on God's command. Twice found not guilty by reason of insanity, Bettie was twice as often as that confined to mental institutions (see also, Richard Corliss, “The Garbo of Bondage,” Time Magazine Web Exclusive, April 25, 2006).
Harron and Turner's screen presentation wants none of this. Theirs is a post-Born Again, post-feminist apologia for the pin-up, which, with its secret-keeping and shameless revisionism reduces the debate-team member, high school salutatorian, college graduate, multiple rape and mental illness survivor more often photographed than Marilyn Monroe to a blathering fool and sexual naïf as if in her defense.
Those things she certainly was not. I am not placed to evaluate the truth of Foster's allegations, but they do round out a story that seems otherwise too flat. The story of a woman abused and objectified so often she learned to take ownership of the object she'd become, ignoring the moral conflicts within until the political moment knocked her down, and the demons of her conscience (or schizophrenia) overcame her. Conventional claims aside, there is nothing enigmatic about Bettie or her life, even if Mol is directed to seem impenetrable in a performance over praised in good part for its under dressing (the reviews call the actress “game” and “adorable,” “stunning” and “mind-blowing”). If mystery there is at all, it's because so much of her personal narrative has been kept underground, covered up, or contradicted by Bettie's own pretenses and a nostalgic fan base who would rather hollow her out to a superficial shell (the better to fuel their fantasies of guiltless lust) than deal with the blood and guts of what made her who she was. Is. Bettie turned 83 this past April. She can be found in varying states of unholiness all over the net, and beyond.
©2006 Shari L. Rosenblum