The Notorious Bettie Page

In a Washington Post interview, Mary Harron, director of The Notorious Bettie Page (IMDB), comments in passing that female directors are more likely to be interested in “demystifying sex” than their male counterparts, and it is this impulse that seemed to guide Harron’s approach to the Bettie Page story, showing the pin-up queen less as a sexual icon than as a fully human character. At the same time, Gretchel Mol’s playful performance calls attention to the performance aspects of Page’s sexual posing, both in terms of her classic pin-ups and her bondage films and photographs.

The Notorious Bettie Page, filmed primarily in nostalgic black-and-white, is framed by the 1950s morality scandals, opening with an undercover police officer setting up a raid on a store selling pornographic magazines and Super-8 “stag” films. The raid sets up a sequence featuring the hearings on juvenille delinquency headed by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (played by David Strathairn), with Bettie waiting nervously outside the Senate chamber where she is scheduled to testify. While these scenes emphasize the cultural conservatism associated with the 1950s, especially the taboos related to sex, Harron wisely underplays the Kefauver hearings, focusing instead on Page’s relatively brief career as a pin-up queen.

After a brief sequence depicting Page’s strict religious youth and her first marriage, the film then focuses on Page’s unsuccessful attempts to become an actress and her gradual transition into the world of modeling. The film suggests that Page takes quickly to her new career, happily posing in a bikini for a group of amateur photographers before eventually removing the bikini and posing nude, rationalizing that “it’s just a little piece of fabric.” Throughout these scenes, Bettie seems to remain relatively naive, accepting the assurances that the customers for her photographs are “respectable” men with slightly unusual tastes. In this regard, I found the “posing” sequences to be utterly fascinating, with Bettie “acting” to the directions of the photographers much like she attempts to emulate the directions from her “legitimate” acting teachers. In both cases, performance is central, and the apparently natural or realistic performances of method acting are no more natural than Bettie’s playful winking to the camera as a model. When Bunny Yeager comments about Page that “When she’s nude, she doesn’t seem naked,” I read the comment as highlighting Page’s ability to perform to the camera. Page’s performances are not without consequences of course. Her relationship with a young actor sours, in part because of her status as a pin-up queen, and more dramatically, Harron sympathetically depicts the testimony of a father whose son hung himself, likely while engaged in an act of auto erotica. Still, the film is able to dodge many of the questions about the effects of pornography by focusing almost excusively on the producers and not on the consumers of this material.

As Page’s career evolves, Harron introduces more and more color into the film, particularly during some of Page’s bondage films, but also during the later stages of Page’s career when she posed for Yeager (including the famous Playboy cover). As most poular culture junkies will know, Page eventually returned to Christianity and left behind her modelling career. The film seems to imply that Page left her past behind with few regrets, but Harron wisely emphasizes the fact that after her career, Page was able to return to a relatively “normal,” if necessarily private, life after she ended her career as a model, rather than taking what Harron describes as a “punitive attitude” towards Page or suggesting that women who do sex work will necessarily meet some horrible fate. It’s a complicated film politically, and I haven’t quite resolved my reaction to it. I think Harron manages to “demystify” Bettie Page in this film but does so without resorting to the puritanical denials of visual pleasure identified with the Kefauver hearings, which were in many ways a media panic rather than a moral panic.

By the way, while you’re in the neighborhood, check out Bettie Page’s MySpace page.

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