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She Didn’t Act Sexy, She Just Was Sexy

July 27th, 2009 · 4 Comments

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, poster The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, poster

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)
Written by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner
Directed by Mary Harron
Produced by Killer Films/ John Wells Productions/ HBO Films
Running time: 91 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?

In 1955, a Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency convenes under the chairmanship of Senator Kefauver (David Strathairn). As infamous S&M pin-up Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) waits to be called in to testify, her story moves back in time, first to 1936 and her childhood in Nashville, where young Bettie seeks the life of a pious Baptist, despite a burgeoning sexuality that draws the salacious attention of her father. Bettie’s further experiences with men — a possessive Army husband (Norman Reedus) and later, a pack of predatory boys — fail to deter her from moving to New York, where Bettie pursues an acting career.

Bettie is plucked from obscurity by a photographer/cop (Kevin Carroll), who suggests she restyle her hair so her black bangs sweep over her forehead. She soon appears on the cover of magazines with titles like Slick, Male Life and She. This introduces Bettie to Paula and Irving Klaw (Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer), owners of a memorabilia shop who dabble in fetish photos, magazines and 8 mm films, skirting obscenity laws for select clientele. Nature photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) observes a special quality about the free spirited Bettie: when nude, she doesn’t actually seem naked. Her fetish work ultimately upsets an actor boyfriend (Jonathan Woodward) and Bettie’s own moral conscience.

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol, Norman Reedus

Who Made It?
Canadian Mary Harron began her career in rock journalism. She was a TV, theatre and music critic and in the mid-‘70s helped establish the first punk music magazine in the United States: Punk. Harron began her filmmaking career producing and directing short documentaries for the BBC. More work in documentary TV followed stateside before Harron made a leap into feature films, co-writing and directing the independently financed I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). A controversial film version of the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho (2000) followed. Her TV work has included directing an episode of Oz, The L Word and Big Love among others.

A Bettie Page screenplay Harron wrote with her American Psycho collaborator Guinevere Turner took 14 years to go from script to screen, but piqued the interest of producers Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel & Christine Vachon of Killer Films, the independent production company based in New York that had backed I Shot Andy Warhol. The company has a deal with John Wells — executive producer of E.R. and The West Wing — who covers all of Killer’s salaries and office costs, as well as underwriting their development. In return, Wells receives executive producer credit on all their films, One Hour Photo, Far From Heaven and Infamous among them.

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol, Kevin Carroll

How’d They Do It?

In 1993, Mary Harron was working on a tabloid TV show for Fox when a co-worker named Sam Green gave her a fanzine featuring 1950s S&M pin-up queen Bettie Page. Harron recalled, “I had never heard of Bettie Page. I started reading up on her and I was very intrigued by the story. She came from Nashville and I know Nashville pretty well. I was immediately interested in the sex and religion aspects of her story, and the fact that she’d sort of disappeared and then come back.” Fox was interested in getting Page — then in her late 60s — back on camera for a segment, but when the ex-model refused to be photographed, the idea was dropped.

In preparation for her first feature, Harron considered making a 20-minute short on Bettie Page. “After I met Guin, we started talking about working on it together to make it longer, like a 45 or 50-minute film. And at that point I was already writing my first film. And then Warhol came out we started working on it again and it was going to be for HBO. Then we started thinking about it as a feature film, but it was just a very hard thing to get right. Her character’s very elusive. I liked the fact that there was this mystery in her and I felt that in all the years I spent researching it there was always an absence at the center of her.”

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol

Along with Sam Green — who took on the role of lead researcher and produced transcripts of the Kefauver hearings — Harron & Turner traveled to Nashville, interviewing Bettie Page’s brother Jack in what they felt was a step to meeting the enigmatic ex-model. But Page’s agent scotched any and all cooperation between his client and the writers when he sold Page’s life rights to another project. Harron — who hadn’t met Valerie Solanas before making I Shot Andy Warhol — was undeterred. Interviews with Paula Klaw, Bunny Yeager and Page’s ex-husband Billy Neal enabled her to forge ahead with a script, then titled The Ballad of Bettie Page.

After many drafts over several years, brunettes Liv Tyler and Jennifer Connelly were popular picks to play Bettie Page. It was blonde Gretchen Mol who stood out in auditions. Harron recalled, “What Gretchen did, or didn’t do rather is that she didn’t act sexy, she intuitively understood Bettie who didn’t act sexy either, she just was sexy. Bettie’s joy in life was posing and she just loved showing herself off but it was done in a sweet, innocent way, it was a childlike joy and no one else really got that except Gretchen.” When HBO Films — set to finance the film at $6 million — balked at Mol, Harron prepared to make her Bettie Page movie elsewhere at half the price rather than cast another actress.

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol

Financing had been extra rough because of Harron’s decision to shoot most of the movie in black & white. “That made it terribly difficult to get funding for, because we actually shot before Good Night and Good Luck — which did very well. But people said, ‘You will never get any foreign sales. You’ll never get this movie financed. People won’t do a movie in black & white anymore because people won’t go see it.’” She added, “It took many years to get it financed and I think people did see that there was a cult of Bettie Page and that there’s a nostalgia for the style, and the sexiness of the era.” After HBO warmed up to Gretchen Mol, a 32-day shooting schedule commenced April 2004 in New York.

The Notorious Bettie Page
was screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2005 and South By Southwest the following March before opening April 2006 in the United States. Critics responded favorably. Stephanie Zacharek, Salon:The Notorious Bettie Page is a true feminist movie, but one that avoids cant and facile theories about victimization. Harron and Turner find a great deal of friendly good humor in the Bettie Page story, and Harron has framed that story beautifully.” Richard Schickel, Time Magazine: “This cheeky movie does not impose heavy-duty meaning on Page’s life and times. It just lets us draw our own ambiguous conclusions about what she did. It is the better, the more enticing, for so doing.”

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer

When it came to giving the reclusive Bettie Page — then 82 years old — a look at the film, producer Pamela Koffler joined Page, Hugh Hefner and several Playboy bunnies for a screening at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. The living legend was not comfortable with what she saw. Koffler lamented, “In many ways, the essence of Bettie as portrayed in the film was really dead on. She had a very naïve quality and lacked any kind of guile. The Bettie who watched that film seemed exactly that way — taking everything at face value, unable to see the nuance or irony of even the title of the film, which she spoke out against. ‘I’m not notorious! Why did you call it that?’”

Never expanding beyond 73 screens, The Notorious Bettie Page took in $1.4 million in the United States and $362,000 overseas. Providing context to her film, Mary Harron mused, “So many biopics try to explain everything complex and mysterious about their character in terms of childhood trauma. I didn’t want to be so reductive, to reduce Bettie’s life to pop psychology. I wanted there to be some mystery and ambiguity. Obviously it’s my interpretation of Bettie’s life because there’s a lot of selection involved and I’ve chosen to highlight certain events of her life over others. But I’m not trying to give a final answer about who Bettie was, because I don’t think there is one. I think the truth about Bettie lies within her contradictions.”

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol, Sarah Paulson

Should I Care?
I didn’t care for this flick much when I first saw it. Recalling Tim Burton’s love poem Ed Wood, the film adores the kitsch queen of its title, transitioning adoringly from black & white to Technicolor (courtesy director of photography Mott Hupfel). It sounds terrific, with platters by Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee and Charles Mingus. Gretchen Mol’s joyful portrayal — requiring much work al natural — practically bends the frame into the shape of a heart. It just wasn’t clear to me who Bettie Page was or why I needed to care. Those questions are not answered, but they didn’t need to be. Instead, Harron and her collaborators provide enough detail and texture for us to make up our own minds.

Sophisticated and insidiously witty, The Notorious Bettie Page is as much a document of a time as it is a woman, and that ultimately tells us everything we really need to know about the woman. Aside from Mol — whose profuse wit rates her among the finest actresses under the age of 40 — the film is supremely well cast, with Jared Harris as foppish British fotog John Willie and Cara Seymour as Bettie’s co-star. Mary Harron is developing into an actor’s director with great taste and an equal edge for creating worlds. The fact that the director, screenwriters, lead actor and six of seven producers were women is reassuring; that their movie is this excellent is invigorating.

Your thoughts?

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006, Gretchen Mol

Where’d You Get All of This?
“As Costume Dramas Go, Bettie Page’s Is Rather Brief”
By Karen Durbin. The New York Times, 2 April 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page
— Production Notes

A Killer Life. By Christine Vachon. Simon & Schuster, 2006

“Bad Girls Go Everywhere”
By Ada Calhoun. Nerve.com, 2006

“Interview with Mary Harron, the Writer/Director of The Notorious Bettie Page By Rebecca Murray. About.com

“Mary Harron Bettie Page Interview” By Gaynor Flynn. Girl.com.au

Tags: Interrogation · No opening credits

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Craig Kennedy // Jul 27, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    My take on Notorious Bettie Page and one of the reasons it was among my favorite movies of 2006 is that it was more about US than it was about Ms. Page. She remains enigmatic, but it’s what she represented as sort of a force of nature and how we as a society and as individuals respond to her that was interesting.

    The quote about Mol not acting sexy and just being sexy is completely dead on. It was a completely guileless performance as a women who herself seemed to lack guile.

  • 2 Tommy Salami // Jul 31, 2009 at 9:51 am

    This was an enjoyable biopic and you’re right, it kept the mystery of Bettie and made her simply a natural. It got dismissed as a puff piece by some, but I think they miss the point.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 31, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Craig: I enjoyed your assessment of The Notorious Bettie Page and am equally enthused you found it one of the best of 2006. I didn’t feel the movie was about how people in the ’50s reacted to Page so much because I think she escaped the kind of instant celebrity we’re accustomed to on YouTube. But I agree that the film does provoke the viewer to consider how they feel about Page. Gretchen Mol is a force of nature in the part. Thanks for commenting!

    Tommy: You summed up not only the appeal of the film but its reception more succinctly than I could. Mary Harron is one filmmaker where it really benefits the audience to watch her work, maybe step back and watch it again a year or two later. American Psycho and Bettie Page aren’t what a lot of people were expecting and take a some time to fully appreciate. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 Sedate Me // Aug 21, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Bettie Page was nowhere near as good as American Psycho and I was let down by the gentleness of it all. But maybe that was the point. Much ado about nothing. A “villain” who is really the most innocent person around.

    But boy is Gretchen Mol interesting to watch. She has the ability to come across so sweet & innocent, bordering on a loving grandmother figure at times, even when she’s wearing leather and is tied up or spanking somebody.

    She made a great 70’s female quasi-cop and would make a great “surprise killer”, mentally disabled gal or a Freaky Friday Mom-Grandma switch.

    Or, better yet, my next girlfriend.

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