The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)
Starring: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor, Jared Harris, Jonathan M. Woodward, Sarah Paulson, David Strathairn, Cara Seymour
Directed by: Mary Harron
With the sub-culture return of burlesque and the rising popularity of Suicide Girls-like interpretations of sexuality and beauty, the world was ready for a biopic of 1950s pin-up sensation Bettie Page. Page is now getting the icon-treatment she probably deserves today, opening the door for a movie to delve into the woman behind the pictures, to clue the new generation of fans into what it was like when Page was posing for pictures decades ago.
Unfortunately, Mary Harron‘s The Notorious Bettie Page doesn’t get the job done. The movie is short on characterisation, purpose, plot, and most importantly, relevance. The whole venture feels paper-thin, leaving me with an unshakable feeling of “so what?” when it was finished. Moments come and go in the movie, with little context and less impact. Hell, you barely even get the impression that Page was all that popular in her day, other than when the odd fan awkwardly approaches her. Pictures are taken by Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), but never spoken of having created a sensation, we’re told that some pics will be sent to Playboy, but never actually told that they were published and increased Page’s fame. It’s as though HBO (who produced the movie) figured that only fans would be interested in this movie, so it just flashed through some iconic moments of her career, figuring people who already poured through her biography would be watching, and thus could fill in the relevance themselves.
Not only is the movie disappointing on an informative level, it just isn’t satisfying on an entertainment level. The movie doesn’t seem to have much to say about Page, other than behind her bondage pictorials, she was a sweet, unassuming girl. The “Notorious” in the title is obviously meant to be ironic, as the sweet, naive girl the movie portrays is anything but. However, Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner go too far in demystifying the girl behind the pictures, making Page seem kinda silly in that she never seems to clue into what she’s doing, and never seems in control of her surroundings. She just stands in front of the camera, makes a few “aw shucks” motions, and some pretty pictures pop out. You get the impression that the movie isn’t trying to treat Page as a ditz, but that’s how she ends up coming off more often than not.
Worse, story devices and elements that may have provided the film some coherence never amount to anything, and are dropped as though they never happened. Most of the film is framed around Page waiting to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, then reminiscing on her life as it led her there. A horrible childhood is briefly shown, then never developed. Sure, it would have made for biopic cliche, but if Harron wasn’t going to tie it in later, then there was little reason to show it at all. In the end, Page didn’t even end up testifying before the committee, so setting the movie up around that non-event was pretty stupid.
Except that it was a perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole, a complete non-event. I barely know more about Bettie Page now having seen it then I did before I saw it (and a good portion of that was from reading her Wikipedia page). Gretchen Mol was decent in a semi-comeback role as Bettie Page, but not really all that impressive. Certainly not impressive enough to rise above the flat storytelling of the film, which felt like something produced for the HBO network (on par with 1996’s Norma Jean & Marilyn), then given a small theatrical release to capitilise on the cult-popularity of its subject. If you’re interested on the story behind the pin-up queen of the universe, then you should probably find a book about her. If you’re interested in seeing an actress re-create some of her famous photos while others try (and fail) to surround it with a movie, then I guess you could watch this movie.