Review for Cineaste
The Notorious Bettie Page
Produced by Lori Keith Douglas, Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, and John Wells; directed by Mary Harron; screenplay by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner; cinematography by Mott Hupfel; edited by Tricia Cooke; music by Joseph S. DeBeasi and Mark Suozzo; art direction by Thomas Ambrose; costume design by John A. Dunn; starring Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn and Lili Taylor. Black & white and color, 91 min. A Picturehouse release.
In the first fifteen minutes of Mary Harron’s third film, we’re shifted around a bit in time. First we have a caption reading “New York 1955 – Times Square.” Soon after, we’re in “Nashville 1936,” and before too much longer, we’re back in “New York,” only in “1949.” Captions like these are typical in the cinema, but in The Notorious Bettie Page I find that these labeling stickers inadvertently reveal the film’s attitude toward history. Virtually every image in this film is internally marked with finality, a security that “the past” is as easily pulled out and replaced as a file folder – categorized, not coincidentally, like the smut collection presided over by the film’s resident taxonomers, Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor). Bettie Page implicitly asks us to pull history out of the dusty drawer and examine it, lord over it, with the photographer’s magnifying eyepiece.
This attitude toward the American past is, as it happens, typical of Harron’s directorial style. Under the auspices of tackling suburban complacency and the button-down Republicrat mind, Harron’s films frequently succumb to a snide detachment and a rampant historical presentism. American Psycho (another collaboration with Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner, from 2000) turned the eighties into “The 80s,” with Reaganite values and tinny Katrina and the Waves music ratcheted up to the level of lubricious parody. Likewise, Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) depicts the sixties as “The 60s,” with cartoonish flower-power grandstanding only serving to make Warhol’s Factory seem a relative oasis for the comfortably numb.
In many ways, Bettie Page continues this selectively iconic, VH1 approach to the past. Bettie Page delivers “New York 1955 – Times Square” as a world of repressed gentlemen in their fedoras, squirreling around in the dark after some racy photos and 8mm films while The Man lurked in the night, ready to squash all that innocent fun. And, based on the condensed assault of the scenes that immediately follow – incest, rape, and spousal abuse, all in a ten-minute interval – “Nashville 1936” was no picnic either.
None of this is to say that the facts the life of Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) are to be sanitized so as not to cast American history in a bad light. Likewise, yes, there were indeed Congressional smut-trials led by showboating politicians like Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), and governmental repression and encroachments on our privacy should always be interrogated, by art as well as scholarship, if we’re to maintain a realistic and useful relationship to our own past. Nevertheless, Harron’s film relies on smug shorthand that flatters its own audience for our presumed enlightenment. Senators and G-Men are all slicked back in their gray suits, a tube of Brylcreem wedged up their tight bureaucratic asses. This is a Saturday Evening Post nightmare, the forced rectitude of the Eisenhower era, and Bettie Page makes palpable the need for crusading mavericks to overthrow its hegemony. (And, if parallels to the present era are detected, all the better. You, the discerning Landmark moviegoer, have already proven by your ticket purchase that you aren’t one of the mundanes.)
Whereas Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, cautioned his readers not to congratulate themselves too quickly by identifying with the outlaws, harlots, and perverts of the Victorian era (noting that "we 'other Victorians'" were in fact more repressed than we knew, and that living in the present is in itself no one-way ticket to freedom), Harron and company do exactly that. Hey, look, lurking in the back alleys of New York and some weird out-of-the-way suburbs, people were dealing in sex! It’s unclear whether this is supposed to be a newsflash, or a vindication of the drab normalcy of seemingly outré sexual practices, some sort of comic attempt to hang a Vanillaroma car freshener around the neck of B&D. (For any of this to be fun, don’t we at least have to pretend it’s dangerous?) On the other hand, the filmmakers choose to disproportionately highlight Page’s bondage photos even though they were a small part of her output. Her tamer work accounted for her widespread popularity as a pin-up girl, and yet the film behaves as though addressing this fact would represent a lapse into squareness. Are harnesses and chains being sensationalized or presented as just another part of the human sexual mosaic?
Ensnared in its own levels of irony, The Notorious Bettie Page finds itself incapable of making clear statements about sex and gender, evincing not the complexity of art but the confusion of hedged bets. The film flirts with class issues, as when Paula assures Bettie that the bondage photos are for “real high-class men,” doctors and judges and lawyers whose lives are filled with pressures the rest of us can’t understand. (Strange. Bettie herself seems a little tense as she hops from audition to audition, trying to scratch out a living in the Big Apple.) But, since Bettie Page has to toe the sex-positive party line, it can’t really interrogate whether or not whips and chains really are the toys of the haute-bourgeoisie and what they might mean. Bettie repeats Paula’s line later on, as justification for her work. But what would this really mean in terms of the sex games the film seeks to normalize? Similarly, Bettie Page makes pointed use of women characters functioning in what we might have assumed to be all-male domains. Not only do we have Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) working in the skin trade, or a lesbian-coded female photographer (Shelly Mars) scrapping in the pit with the boys, imploring Bettie to “show us your keester.” The film also depicts a woman as complicit in Bettie’s gang-rape in Nashville. The provocation of including this woman cannot be missed, but without meaningful context, it feels like a hollow gesture, a “gotcha!” on the part of this “edgy” filmmaking team.
Sadly, the film is as formally muddy as it is ideationally obtuse. The Notorious Bettie Page isn't particularly well made. On the micro-level, eyelines don't match up and edits feel perfunctory, seldom melding to provide a genuine sense of cinematic space. On the larger structural level, major stylistic tropes like the occasional shifts from black-and-white to color seem vague in their motivation. (So Florida is the land of color? Why? Why are the Super-8 films shot outdoors in Ektachrome, only sometimes, whereas indoor films are always black-and-white?) If there is a coherent visual scheme at work, I confess it eluded me.
So, if you’re actually looking for a nuanced, formally bold, intellectually rigorous examination of the 1950s, in particular the dialectical relationship between underground and official knowledge, do yourself a great favor and see Ken Jacobs’ towering six-hour opus Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), now available on DVD. All the same, I’d be kidding myself if I actually thought that trenchant historical analysis is what folks are looking for in Bettie Page, a film whose subject – the most famous pin-up girl and bondage-queen of the era – sort of sells itself. Just as Mol’s Bettie is hilariously instructed to do before the camera, the film’s audience presumably demands that The Notorious Bettie Page give us “sassy,” “haughty,” and “pert,” and in that regard it does deliver. As Porton correctly noted in his Toronto festival wrap-up, the film also manages to eschew the dime-store psychologizing of its subject so characteristic of the biopic genre. While Harron, Turner, and indie super-producer Christine Vachon happily place “The 50s” on the dissecting table, Bettie Page herself remains impermeable, “reflective” not in the manner of a novelistic heroine but a glossy finish.
There’s been a lot of talk about Gretchen Mol’s performance, and it’s easily one of the year’s finest. But it’s also one of the most easily misunderstood. Mol plays Bettie not as empty, and certainly not as stupid. Instead, despite all she’s been through and maybe even because of it, Bettie has an unshakable sense of self that, against all odds, is rooted in her religious upbringing. She’s no blind believer, but she is confident that whatever else she may be, she is a Child of God. Mol, through a stunning act of alchemy, almost singlehandedly short-circuits the film’s smug attitude toward the past (and, by extension, those who might’ve been most comfortable in it). Everything good and bad in Bettie Page, every wobbly idea and half-developed insight is held together by Mol's flawless interpretation of Page. Some have argued that the film aims to place a void at its center, fashioning Bettie Page as a vapid curiosity. Some have mistaken Mol's Page character for a wide-eyed innocent, But, as it happens, I think this reading misses the fragile power of Mol’s performance. In fact, her Bettie beautifully, almost pathologically game, willing to entertain the most bizarre request because, like some Southern Christian Kewpie-faced perfect-breasted preternaturally chipper version of Immanuel Kant, she is the Naked Humanist, and nothing human is foreign to her.
True, some of this is due to her own oddly muted, almost but not entirely disposable backstory. For instance, her encounter with the young black photographer is more significant, and more telling, than other reviews are allowing for. This is Mol helping Harron transcend her means, achieving a lehrstücke moment of which Bertolt Brecht would have no doubt approved. “They’re just prejudiced,” Bettie declared, on the verge of tears. “I used to be, when I was young, but I grew up and I learned better.” (From this comment it’s not hard to extrapolate a wider statement on racism as a sad artifact of the humankind’s “childhood,” one we’re still struggling to outgrow.) But mostly Bettie’s imperturbable mien is just a kind of divine gift, an almost Chaplinesque embrasure of the world on its own sordid terms, and when it hurts her or does her wrong, well gosh darn it, surely it'll be better next time. As devised by Mol with an actorly intelligence I didn't know she had, Bettie Page so loved the world that she gave to it her only buns. And boobs. And whip-cracking "saucy look." But no full-frontal, please. Because it was "The 50s" after all, and weren't they just so comically uptight back then?