The Notorious Bettie Page

by Rob Horning

28 April 2006


Mary Harron’s film about Bettie Page was a peculiar exercise in expectation frustration. The point of the film, as far as there was one beyond capitalizing on Gretchen Mol’s willingness to be naked, seems to be that pin-up models are inherently unknowable, that the particulars of their psychology are forever hidden behind the ways in which they service others’ peculiar psychological predilections and fetishes. As the widely distributed objects of fantasy they are forever unknowable as “real” people. So the movie is an anti-biopic that reveals nothing about Page beyond the facts and makes no stabs at giving her more depth than the photographic surface of the many images of her allows for (save for two incidents that are meant to show her victimized, whose inclusion seems to have been the product of some compromise reached after baffled film execs watched the pointlessness of reel after reel of this unspool). The film sheds no light on why Page consented to pose for racy fetish pics, even suggesting that she was too naive to understand what she was involved with. It tells us nothing about the conditions of sex work at the time. It’s utterly unbelievable that she could have been so ignorant of her situation, and the film’s at great pains to insist on her intelligence at other moments. Are we to conclude that censorship and proporiety were so constrictive then that even smart people could be totally clueless about sexuality? It would require the film to give a lot more attention to the question to be persuasive. And so what if it were true?

A wholesale rejection of depth psychology may be sort of conceptually interesting, but it makes for a lousy, boring film. (Though if the pace of it were slowed down any further, it could have taken on a Antonioni-like crypticness that might have pleased some.) A plain old documentary about Page using archival footage would have been far more interesting, why not make that? In fact, are there any biopics that wouldn’t have been better as a documentary, especially those about people who lived in the 20th century, for whom lots of archival footage exists? Call me a philistine, but I don’t care at all that an actor can convincingly play some other person, and that seems to be the only point of recent biopics. At least Harron’s film wasn’t interested in that.

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