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Boot Camp: Mary Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page”

Boot Camp: Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page"

The Notorious Bettie Page” opens with the declaration “HBO Films Presents,” which may bode well if an incongruously letterboxed weekly serial were about to follow. The HBO aesthetic and sensibility have become overappreciated and tagged as something oddly rarefied, but basically it’s nothing more than prime Angus beef, catering to the same middlebrow audience in need of something that can quickly and easily be identified as “quality.” The limpid gloss that lies across made-for-cable movies (think “Empire Falls,” and that one where Cynthia Nixon plays Eleanor Roosevelt) has become as bizarrely homogenized as your run-of-the-mill post-Miramax indie: the same veneer of “progression” and “edginess” veils both. Bill Condon‘s “Kinsey” seemed to court the worst of both worlds, its freshly scrubbed TV movie-ish linearity sat awkwardly with its rampaging, self-important sexual frankness. The bright and star-spangled “Kinsey,” as well as Mary Harron‘s new “Bettie Page,” aren’t content to let their real-life characters just be: they have to represent something we’ve lost, or something we still haven’t learned as a collective nation. In other words, the past loses any semblance to organic behavior it might have had; trapped in amber, every moment and detail becomes preordained, nothing more than a signifier.

Certainly when it comes to sexuality, there’s nothing simpler than to roll one’s eyes at that tried-and-true brand name, American Puritanism. Attempts at driving a nail through the priggish heart of conservatism, “Kinsey,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and now, “The Notorious Bettie Page,” offer oddly anesthetized, “television of quality” portraits of the importance of freedom of speech. Only “Flynt” comes even remotely close to portraying any form of naturalized human behavior: its stars were able to break out of their petrified pasts. For an allegedly transgressive, self-consciously biopicky biopic of a legendary pinup bondage queen, Harron’s “Bettie Page” is alarmingly chaste. Harron goes behind the scenes of Page’s softcore photo shoots to reveal them as a series of giggly tickle-fights. Bettie is but a babe lost in the woods, not so much falling under the spell of a dubious gaggle of pornographer exploiters as playing kooky dress-up with her pals on the weekend for a little extra cash. Couched in truth as it may be, Harron’s approach drains Bettie Page’s aura of anything even remotely resembling eroticism; rather than trying to recreate the excitement or sexual energy of Page’s iconic images, Harron settles for safe, distancing irony. For all its sexual individualism, “Bettie Page” assumes a rather condescending air of its own: Page is a sweet-faced kewpie doll angelically dolling out whack-off material for the pervs who are into leather and chains. According to her, it’s just dress-up, and she remains completely oblivious to the erotic thrill of the s&m following for which she becomes the definitive poster girl. Like Thom Fitzgerald‘s “Beefcake,” which looked back on the male physique pictorials of the Fifties with the same rosy-tinted glasses and twee nostalgia, “Notorious Bettie Page” keeps itself at arm’s length from the sexual provocations of the era (“Well, if you’re into that sorta thing…”)

Despite Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner‘s disingenuous approach to the character, Gretchen Mol‘s performance as Page is a bright-eyed and bushy tailed delight. Limp-wristedly wielding whips and riding crops like Tinkerbell creating pixie dust, Mol, curvaceous and apple-cheeked, brings an attractive, buoyant honesty to Page that fleshes out what the script cannot; from her buttoned-down youth in Depression-era Nashville to her randy days as a bound-and-gagged photo starlet, her dignity is never in question. While all around her, Harron flashily recreates all the era’s “signature” styles, from black-and-white noir to color Super 8 home movies, Mol keeps Page grounded.

Despite a tricky wraparound narrative involving the investigation of a Tennessee Senator (played in a cameo by David Strathairn as if in rebuttal to his righteous, truth-seeking Edward R. Murrow) into the impact of pornographic material on American youth, the film wisely stays away from overt political grandstanding. “The Notorious Bettie Page” doesn’t quite become the fight for justice that the opening–in which a tranquil Bettie awaits her moment on the witness stand–portends, but conceptually the film still flirts with the idea of Bettie as martyr (the crucifixion-like bondage poses don’t help much). Harron’s always been a glib filmmaker; “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho” had the great benefit of featuring ultraverbal protagonists who seemed to track their own every move with accompanying narration. And never does “Bettie Page,” in its succinct period-gimmick detail and nostalgic approach to fifties decor, become anything more than it appears to be at first glance. By treating sexuality as both victim and tease, “Bettie Page” plays it far too safe: it treats kitsch as (gasp!) kitsch!

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Film Comment.]

An image from “The Notorious Bettie Page.” Photo provided by Picturehouse

Take 2
by Kristi Mitsuda

While often American movies feel exasperatingly long-winded, untrustingly employing copious exposition or else hankering for a disingenuously “epic” dimension, at a jaunty 91 minutes “The Notorious Bettie Page” aims to inject freshness into the stodgy biopic genre. All the more disappointing, then, that it suffers for this brevity, not allowing itself the time to do more than wade in the shallows when the dangerously exciting deep end beckons: You can’t help but wonder whether the addition of a few more scenes might’ve illuminatingly fleshed out the iconic figure for modern audiences. Flaunting the same slickly appealing visual flair as previous features “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” Mary Harron’s latest is as retro-stylish as the magazines the titular pin-up gal adorns, but – though burning with potential – remains as distressingly superficial as those glossy pages. Perhaps the HBO-produced film would’ve fared better within the more lightweight-friendly parameters of the small screen? Rarely given access to unposed moments, Harron pays overlong attention to the documenting of photo shoots and, in particular, the recreation of a Page-starring series of S&M movies produced by fetish peddlers Irving and Paula Klaw. Attention to these curios fulfills the novelty quotient, but don’t sufficiently animate attempts to explore the tension between Bettie’s devout religiosity and celebratory sense of sexuality. And this fuzzy focus presents a conspicuously unexplored avenue: How did her conflicting beliefs cross over into her personal relationships with the many men in her life? Unfortunately, as played by the game but merely serviceable Gretchen Mol, Bettie never comes across as a real woman who lived and died so much as a cartoon, another Betty (Boop) incarnate. Treated as feminist precursor and free speech symbol one moment and a relic to be regarded as high-camp (see the end credit roll) the next, she remains a cipher, someone upon whom to project our desires.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]

Take 3
by Leah Churner

“The Notorious Bettie Page” has all the gravitas of a Tiki theme-bar, and reveals little more of Page than the lightswitch covers, coasters, and other “retro” knicknacks so commonly adorned with her picture. More like a very slick power-point presentation than a biopic, Harron rapidly fires the barest bulletpoints of the pinup queen’s bio without a splinter of insight, maintaining audience attention only through the spectacular T&A of Gretchen Mol. Undeniably, Mol looks just like Bettie, but the film’s ambition to exactly replicate all the known Bettie film footage and photos in circulation is baffling. What’s the point? Why not just make a documentary and play the original footage? After all, none of the actors are acting, so the burden of signaling mood and emotion falls completely on the trite and predictable soundtrack, in which Esquivel cha-cha equals happy and Patsy Cline equals sad. What is worse, the syrupy “noir” title sequence, which looks suspiciously like a Flonaise commercial, or Lili Taylor‘s character in this movie? Valerie Solanas, shoot me now!

It seems obvious and easy to pan a biopic of Bettie Page, but really, any icon so firmly planted in our collective consciousness should be fodder for a bit of introspection. Bettie Page’s sudden and involuntary emergence on the horizon of mainstream culture in the seventies, as well as her continued popularity among women, indicate that as an idea, Bettie Page fills some pervasive void in the American psyche. Isn’t it bizarre that we consider Bettie Page gagged in a hogtie to be so much more innocuous than Linda Lovelace giving a blowjob? “The Notorious Bettie Page” doesn’t go there, because Harron doesn’t take her subject seriously. The production notes unabashedly cite an episode of “E! True Hollywood Story” as one of the chief source materials for the script — make no mistake, the genre we’re dealing with here is called cable. And by cable standards, with its bloated production values and ensemble cast, it’s the classiest 90 minutes of softcore to come out of HBO since “Gia.”

[Leah Churner is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]

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