The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, May 18, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Notorious Bettie Page

Full review behind the jump

The Notorious Bettie Page
: Mary Harron
Writers: Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner
Producers: Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon
Stars: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor

Bettie Page lit up in front of a camera, and The Notorious Bettie Page, a keenly-observed dramatization of her brief and scandalous career as a pin-up queen and bondage icon, has the same virtue. It has matched part to player sublimely in the person of Gretchen Mol – a confident, beautiful woman placing her healthy body on display without shame or fear. And when she poses and struts and flashes her smile, the movie is all it should be: naughty but somehow nice; sexy, but somehow innocent.

Some actors seem to make a spiritual connection to the real-life figures they depict, and Mol’s kaleidoscope of expression flawlessly duplicates that unique combination of hormonal appeal and disarming exuberance – Page’s ability to be, as one photographer puts it, “nude, but not naked”.

It’s in the rest of the movie that co-writer/director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) fails to find her footing. She has put the all the proper ingredients on the screen, but when those central elements – Page and a camera – are not together, the movie deflates a crucial little bit.

Its inference is clear as can be – that Page, abused by one man or another from the moment her adult body blossomed, had an unusual appreciation for the parameters of modeling. In the film she seems to see it as a form of politeness – men will continue to take pleasure from the fact of her womanhood, only this time they will at least ask her permission, keep their hands off her and give her thanks and compensation. She takes classes in Method Acting technique simultaneously – to her they are interchangeable forms of play and make-believe.

Harron doesn’t over-indulge in the worst pains of Bettie’s life, she lets our imaginations do most of the work and that’s smart. But the hints we’re given, by and large, fail to summon the dread you’d expect. We’re watching a timeline, an explanation of the powerless position a women could find herself in, but rarely do we make a connection with her immediate feelings. Throughout the movie, facts and places and events come to us as awkward trivia, the curse of any biopic and a disappointing contrast to the vibrant joy of the modeling sessions.

The decision to shoot largely in black-and-white, while a tribute to the agility of cinematographer Mott Hupfel (see how he replicates the color schemes imprinted on us as representing the Technicolor “reality” of the 50’s), costs us some intimacy. The dialogue feels almost purposely flat in these danger sequences as well, as if trying to do a somersault bounce off the squeaky-clean cliché image of America’s Leave it to Beaver years. Such trickery is not the way to the hearts or guts of moviegoers.

It does provide a funny and stark contrast to today’s world, where hardcore pornography is a phone line and two mouse clicks away. This is still the time when men slink in to dingy storefronts with their trenchcoat lapels pulled up to hide their face, seeking stimulation. And some had the money and influence to request particular satisfactions. By the inviolate laws of economics, supply materialized to meet that demand. A woman with Bettie’s sense of freedom could have power, and a kind of awe, accorded her.

The movie excels at observing her relationship to her actions, how at times she seems to be standing outside and wondering at the peculiarity of it all. Perhaps, also, how lucky she is, given what was done to her back in Tennessee, that some men will pay just to see her wearing leather boots. She even has a spiritual theory about it, and tries to balance Jesus’ awareness of her sins with his desire to have her use the talent she’s been given. How marvelous that she could share this theory while a man (Jared Harris) is fitting her with ropes and a ball gag.

You can tell that Irving (Chris Bauer) and Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) know almost immediately that they’ve found someone special. They run a private studio that creates photos and short films to send high-paying customers through the mail. Bettie is so agreeable and playful with even their weirdest ideas that the biggest challenge is getting her to look stern when she’s holding the riding crop.

The Klaws are a joy to watch as both a couple and a team – protective of “their” girls, impressed by the status of their most fervent customers, always functioning as one. When legal troubles flare up, resulting in a Congressional Committee headed by an unctuous Senator (David Strathairn), poor Irving can’t seem to understand it at all. In his mind, if the New York Times can run a picture of a spanking next to a review of a Broadway musical, how is he doing anything wrong? Not to mention the fact that the people condemning him now are the same elites he was so proud to cater to.

The hypocrisy and squareness of the authority figures, abusers, and the generally sanctimonious, combine to fade them into the background. It’s only people like the Klaws, and fellow photographers like John Willie (Jared Harris) and Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) who seem to have a pulse, and Bettie above them all living a full and fearless life. I like what The Notorious Bettie Page has to say but am dismayed at the elementary stumbles that cloud its many qualities. It’s as if the movie nails the hardest maneuver of its genre, then stubs its toe while walking.


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