“The Notorious Bettie Page” reps a missed opportunity. A superficial look at the ’50s sex icon, pic feels like it was researched via press clippings rather than attempting a fresh rethinking of its era and provocative subject. Tame and unsexy by the standards of HBO, which will broadcast the film after bigscreen release in March via Picturehouse, this looks like a non-starter theatrically.
In stark contrast to her boldly incisive first two features, “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” director Mary Harron’s work here seems curiously uninvolved. There’s no sense of any particular commitment to the leading character, who comes off as a perfectly ordinary woman, other than the fact that she happily posed for nudie photographs that, in their era, were considered racy, even kinky.
Result is a strangely placid, unchallenging picture with no blood in its veins. Gretchen Mol is splendid to behold in every stage of dress or undress, but Harron and co-scenarist Guinevere Turner offer no clues as to what might be going on inside the dark-haired beauty’s head and heart. As Bettie Page was a sexual fetish for ’50s men, so does she seem little more than a cultural fetish for these modern filmmakers.
As framed here, Bettie’s journey is one from Jesus to Sodom and back again, a trip admirably described nonjudgmentally, but with no insight either.
After an apt B-movieish opening documenting the bust of a Times Square dirty-magazine store and some Senate pornography hearings, pic briefly charts Bettie’s poor, God-fearing youth in ’30s Nashville, her failed wartime marriage and a gang rape that seems to hasten her departure for New York City in 1949.
As in George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” decision to shoot in black-and-white is well justified by the frequent intercutting between dramatic footage and archival docu material (mostly unfamiliar and well chosen), as well as by the fact that the most famous images of Page are monochromatic.
Still, the bursts into vibrant color for Page’s “nudist” photo sessions, as well as for her visits to Florida, reveal one significant downside: Mol comes dazzlingly alive in color in a way she doesn’t in B&W, which increasingly puts a mild damper on the predominantly shades-of-gray picture.
As shaped here, Bettie’s life is heavily determined by her unguarded acceptance of proposals made by men during chance encounters. One such key overture is made on a beach by a black cop who dabbles in photography. Not only do the innocuous photos he takes get Bettie’s face and figure in print, but he redoes her hair with the bangs for which she would forever after be known.
Sliding into a completely unexplored relationship with fellow acting student Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), Bettie quickly becomes a favorite of “nature” and girlie mag photogs, with whom she exhibits no hesitation about removing her clothes. She eventually ends up in the grip of the Klaws (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), a nice middle-aged couple who just happen to specialize in mild S&M and bondage photographs.
The pertinent photo shoots are represented as silly, playful affairs that were just “pretend” to Bettie, who seems entirely unaffected by appearing in them. Increasingly, her life comes to look like a sad collection of missed opportunities: a narrowly denied scholarship, a busted marriage, failed auditions and unfulfilled relationships.
Pic is particularly derelict on the last count, as it presents a Bettie Page with no active emotional life and scarcely a sexual one. Could this have been true? Most of the photographers she works with are too nerdy or unsavory to qualify for her attention, and Woodward’s Marvin is a cardboard figure. At one point, Bettie picks up a buff Caribbean lad in Miami for recreational purposes, but it’s a crucial failing that we never know what Bettie wants, either amorously or professionally.
Ending, in which an adrift Bettie reclaims Jesus, is nicely handled, with no condescension and with her insistence that she’s not ashamed of anything she has done in her life. Absent, however, is any end-credits info on what happened to her subsequently.
Mol’s Bettie is compliant, almost always open to any request and never disagreeable. But her lack of spine and inner turmoil make her a central figure of limited interest, that rare dramatic heroine with no ambition or goal.
Supporting cast is just serviceable. But it’s disconcerting to see David Strathairn, at the moment of his triumph as Edward R. Murrow fighting the right-wingers in “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” here portraying Sen. Estes Kefauver as a morals crusader.
Produced on a budget, pic has an OK grasp of period but explores the culture in only the most obvious ways that emphasize an outwardly puritanical society trying to resist internal decay. As one of the political investigators notes, “Communism will never defeat America. No, it’s something within.”