Friday, April 14, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page - Movie Review

The Notorious Bettie Page 2006

The near impossible has happened, we actually enjoyed a film featuring a lead performance by Gretchen Mol. Now, for those of you who have no idea who Gretchen Mol is, we can hardly blame you. Since the infamous publicity blitz that helped to prematurely launch her career back in 1998Miss Mol has fallen far short of the alleged “It Girl” dreams. We might have felt sorry for the poor bint, if it weren’t for the simple fact that nothing she ever did excited us. And while we enjoyed aspects of “Rounders”, “Celebrity” or “Cradle Will Rock” – they certainly were not on account of her presence. Perhaps the best film in her repertoire was Woody Allen’s lovely comic fable based on a fictional jazz musician “Sweet & Lowdown” – although the brief scene involving our heroine of the day was hardly setting the screen on fire.

Turns out that Miss Mol is a talented actress, perhaps not the next Greta Garbo or Meryl Streep, but certainly capable of delivering a solid performance. And with the new biopic concerning the life of “The Notorious Bettie Page”, she finally begins to deliver on the over pitched buildup she garnered years ago. (Cautionary note to young starlets everywhere, just because your manager and publicist blow a junior editor or two to land you the cover to a national distributed rag – doesn’t mean you will have a career.)

Back to our biopic. As many a perv will tell you, Bettie Page was the ultimate “Pin-up Girl” of the post war years. Her perky talents and saucy charisma helped to pitch many a tents among the nation’s loneliest bachelors and degenerates. And when the theme of the photo shoot became slightly risqué or a tad blue – she was apparently game enough to grab the whip and slap on the ballgag. And honestly, we applaud that gumption. Unfortunately for our heroine, the nation’s leaders held a different viewpoint on pin ups and their place in society. Before you could scream “Uptight cunt!” – the conservative government censors began to officially probe into the sweaty underbelly of the innocuous pin up. (Turns out they were more concerned with the fear that the fictional Batman might be donkey punching his underage ward, Robin on cold nights in the Batcave. But that’s another story.)

As the 1950s progressed, the dawn of the “Playboy” era was just beginning, allowing our heroine a place in their immortal lineage of tits and ass. But our gal Bettie was not to reign for long as the most famed of pin-up girls. Soon she would retire and remove herself from the public eye to lead a very reserved life. In short, she fell off the face of the celebrity map and much like the aforementioned Garbo who walked away from her own legendary status at the tender age of thirty six; her fame grew exponentially larger the more she remained hidden away. But did Bettie Page deserve all the attention given to her?

Director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner had been itching to portray our gal Bettie, for a few years now. At one time, the lovely and talented Miss Turner was set herself to essay the lead. But while time and financial backing may have placed the kibosh on those daydreams, they have produced a tightly written and entertaining biopic on the less than perfect life of Miss Page. One of the many things we enjoyed about “The Notorious Bettie Page” was the heavy use of vintage cityscapes and atmospheric stock footage dropped into the storyline. For in tracing the rise and slow fade out of Bettie, we are taken across various vistas from Nashville to New York City to Miami from the Depression to the late 1950s.

While the real Bettie Page has taken on the status of mythology over the years, we were surprised how textbook biopic fodder her real life was. Part of a large Midwestern brood, a child of divorce and a young victim of abuse her dreams of stardom led her down a path that has chewed up many a young girl in search of fame. Certainly there have been hundreds of thousands of pretty young things that posed for cheesecake shots over the decades, but Bettie Page has emerged as the most famous of them all. After all, she is known primarily as an iconic vision of the post war era. While it is true that she filmed some grainy homemade fetish stag films, the public at large knows her for her trademark bangs and perky breasts.

What remains curious about her tale is the brevity of her contemporary fame and the gradual manipulation of her image to incorporate such lofty ideals as feminism, the sexual revolution and brand marketing. Bettie Page has become an industry over the past sixty years, and it all started with a young woman hoping to escape her tattered past.

In many ways, Gretchen Mol is the perfect choice to eschew the lead role. She too has been saddled with a notorious past and dreams of stardom. Her transmogrification into the mid-century masturbatory fantasy is complete. Not the least for her ability to incorporate a free wheeling sense of sexuality while maintaining a believable innocence. We never question her naiveté, for the director and screenwriter tackle it head on. Bettie may be ignorant of some less than worldly views, but she is perfectly game to learn and master the ability to brandish a whip and slap on the thigh-high-lace-up-boots when necessary. (Pay attention girls, this could come in handy in life. Trust us.)

When the world around her begins to act in shock and dismay to Bettie’s daily craft, she is mystified at the uproar. As far as she’s concerned they were merely harmless pics made for discerning clients. Any perverse qualities attached to the act seem to reflect more on the voyeur than the model, in her opinion. Perhaps Bettie Page was indeed the progenitor for a more fluid sexuality that would be embraced by future generations. Or perhaps she was just a dumb slut who avoided the nine-to-five desk-job doldrums by shaking her moneymaker. Either way, the film seems to present our heroine as a simple lass who let history mold her, instead of taking the lead.

Supported by a cornucopia of acting talent from film, television and the Great White Way – notably indy fave Lili Taylor as a photographer / mentor and David Strathairn portraying a crusading senator (Nice flip flop on his Oscar nominated role of last year.) – Gretchen Mol finally begins to emerge as an actress in her own right. We disagree with the notion that this is a “comeback”, since she never actually arrived to begin with.

Let’s just be happy that Gretchen is up to the job handed to her in such a succinct and well made package by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. While this may not be a spectacular or epic biopic on par with the best, it remains an entertaining stroll down one of pop history’s steamier sidestreets. Bless you all!

Directed by Mary Harron
Written by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner

Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page
Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw
Lili Taylor as Paula Klaw
Jared Harris as John Willie
Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager
Cara Seymour as Maxie
David Strathairn as Estes Kefauver
John Cullum as Preacher in Nashville
Matt McGrath as Nervous Man
Austin Pendleton as Teacher
Norman Reedus as Billy Neal
Dallas Roberts as Scotty
Kohl Sudduth as Police Officer

Cinematography by Mott Hupfel
Film Editing by Tricia Cooke
Costume Design by John A. Dunn
Original Music by Mark Suozzo
Production Design by Gideon Ponte
Art Direction by Thomas Ambrose
Set Decoration by Alexandra Mazur


Post a Comment

<< Home