The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

MARY HARRON

Bil’s rating (out of 5):   BBB.5

USA, 2005.  HBO Films, Killer Films, John Wells Productions.  Screenplay by Mary Harron, .  Cinematography by .  Produced by , , , .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  

One of the most curious careers to survive the collective memory of popular culture is that of Bettie Page, a Tennessee girl who shows up in New York in the late forties with dreams of making it as an actress. With her pretty face and fine figure, modelling is a great way to make cash while waiting for her big break, so Page () happily becomes a cheesecake girl and, thanks to a complete lack of insecurities about her physicality, has no trouble stripping off when asked to do so. It isn’t long before she is put into the employ of two enterprising photographers who provide special secret material for clients with prurient interests: Page is asked to don spike-heeled leather boots and take photos thwacking bound-and-gagged damsels with a riding crop. Her work appears to be smut to her boyfriend, but to Page it is simply a bunch of silliness that she treats like an acting job.  The government doesn’t see it that way, however, and this film is framed by the Senate hearings that determined these materials to be pornographic and had Page being summoned to court to testify about her participation in them. Mary Harron’s shallow biopic never gets beyond presenting the facts: nothing about Page’s motivations are ever known, nor is there any tying of her role in the ever-burgeoning porn fetish industry with the times surrounding her. Harron does, however, pay terrific tribute to the subject herself, the curious combination of her sexy physicality and fresh-faced, apple-pie smiles, and Mol portrays her with a lot of vitality and appeal. The downside to the movie’s flimsiness, however, is that it short-shrifts its leading lady on a meatier role and prevents her from having the kind of performance experience that would have won her raves and awards.  It’s more than just a great imitation, but you’d never know it from Harron’s making a film about as emotionally complex as the photos that Page posed for. The era is captured beautifully by the black and white photography, and there’s just enough peril (including a devastating experience of being kidnapped and gang-raped) and humour (particularly in Page’s winsome treatment of nudity) to make it go by in a flash.

Toronto International Film Festival:  2005

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