Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Notorious Bettie Page

"The Notorious Bettie Page" (Mary Harron, 2006) If Marilyn Monroe was the blonde goddess of sex in the 1950's, Bettie Page was her player on the other side. Marilyn was blonde, Bettie, brunette. Where Marilyn had success in Hollywood, Bettie never got beyond stag reels. Where Marilyn's sexuality was paired with a psychic pain, Bettie was exuberant. Marilyn had booze and pills for sanctuary. Bettie had Jesus. Marilyn died fairly young. Bettie's still alive and kicking*** and getting royalties from the continuing interest in her, thanks to devotees such as artist Dave Stevens, who used her as the model for the girlfriend of "The Rocketeer." Both Marilyn and Bettie appeared as centerfolds within the first year of the publication of Playboy Magazine. And this has to be said--Marilyn had talent. Bettie... wasn't much of a dancer. Marilyn was the epitome of sex in Tinseltown, while Bettie worked in the squalid back-rooms of seamy pornographers, and panting "photo clubs."

Bettie's story mirrors Marilyn's: Pretty girl, growing up dirt-poor and abused, an early marriage that doesn't work out, and heading to the Big City to get into acting. There they diverge: Marilyn to fame and early death; Bettie to obscurity, long life and delayed fame. Bettie quit modeling in the 50's after she was hauled to DC to testify in Estes Kefauver's pornography hearings (she was never called in to the hearing room), and so both Marilyn and Bettie are frozen, existing in images of their prime.

Does Mary Harron's film explain Bettie Page and her circumstances and times? Not at all. The facts are laid out, stopping precisely at the hearings that ended Bettie's modeling days and goes no further. The closest it comes is her repeated defense for her nude modeling: "Well, I figure Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden." Point taken, but it doesn't explain the spike heels, whips, spanking and ball-gags (The real Bettie always dismissed her bondage photos as being "silly" and paying the bills). Considering that most people only know her through her looks, Gretchen Mol does an amazing impersonation, right down to a clumsy dance in the end credits, that has just the right touch of amateur clunkiness. In fact, it's downright eerie. Still, it's nice to see this story have a happy ending. I think Bettie would be pleased to know that the copy I watched was from the Public Library. If that's not vindication, I don't know what is.

*** Bettie has been publicly reluctant to be photographed, preferring that people remember how she looked "in her prime." Still, an Image search for "Bettie Page" will reveal rare recent photos of her, and she looks GREAT! The woman's over 80!

Update: The "notorious" Bettie Page died December 11, 2008

No comments: