In 1955, before the internet, men in fedoras and overcoats patronize Times Square magazine stores, scoping the racks for titles like Titter and Wink, Escapade and Flirt. They peer sideways at one another, not quite acknowledging a common desire and sense of guilt (which only enhances the titillation). “Do you have anything a little… different?”, a narrow-eyed customer asks the clerk. “Anything with… unusual footwear?” When the inevitable raid begins, the men scatter into the night, heads down and clutching their coats around them.
This is the scene at the start of The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron’s smart new movie that is not, despite its title, quite about Bettie Page. Though Bettie (a terrific performance by Gretchen Mol) appears in nearly every scene, the movie is more about the many forces that made her “notorious,” the moral hypocrisies and sexual repressions that shaped the ’50s and persist today.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t walk you through some biopic-ish steps. Bettie grew up in Tennessee, married a serviceman, moved to NYC where she met photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor), etc. But these particulars don’t string together in cause-and-effect relationships; instead, they establish contexts for Bettie’s popularity, scandal, and eventual turn to Jesus when she left the “special interest” industry.
Just so, a glimpse of the Senate committee hearings on what chairman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) calls “the effect of pornographic material on adolescents and juveniles” cuts to pinup queen Bettie, with white gloves and pert collar, waiting outside the chambers for her turn to testify. She’s nervous, potentially the government’s Exhibit A in its case against the scourge of porn (the actual case involves an adolescent boy who has appeared to hang himself, either in emulation of an s/m scene or in some despair inspired by his interest in smut).
From here the movie cuts again, to Bettie’s childhood flashback: girls posing for photos for a boy their age, hiking up their skirts and laughing under the caption, “Nashville 1936.” Even as a reverend’s voice intones, “Come all you sinners and be not proud,” Bettie hears her father’s voice, calling the kids back to the house to “do your chores.” It turns out that young Bettie’s is to “come on up” the ominous stairway, lurking in the background of the shot: her face goes pale in close-up and dad clunks up the steps behind her.
The rest of The Notorious Bettie Page essentially complicates and contextualizes the themes laid out in these first three scenes. Bettie comes up in a culture that presents itself as pious, adult, and responsible to its precious children, and that actually exploits, abuses, and menaces those same innocents. Which is not to say she appears here as a victim. Bettie is more a product of conflicting expectations and ideals. On one hand, she’s the perfect, adorable, unthreatening pinup, glancing back over her shoulder with a big smile, welcoming the most insecure of viewers to imagine she wants him. She’s also a popular sex model, spike-heeled and corseted, bound and gagged, exposing herself and posing oh-so-outrageously with fellow model Maxie (excellent Cara Seymour). Bettie embodied both and all, having “fun” in front of the camera, claiming innocence concerning any uses consumers might have for her image.
Of course, not all her experiences are copasetic: during an early solo foray into city streets, she’s approached by a sweet-seeming boy who asks her to go “dancin'” with another couple. She ends up in the middle of nowhere, where she’s threatened with gang-rape. Telling the slick-haired boys, “It’s that time of the month,” she enrages a fellow who was looking forward to “getting some tail.” She’s forced to give them “some kinda satisfaction” as the camera pulls out and up. Following the off-screen attack, Bettie appears in classic ’50s-movie framing, running up from the woods into the camera, tearful and afraid. She pauses, gathers her sweater around her, and heads back into the city: the camera watches her walk away, a survivor of hick cruelty yet again.
That she doesn’t press charges or otherwise “right” this wrong indicates again the era’s restrictions on “girls.” Bettie finds another way to make sense of her experience, riding a Greyhound to NYC, competing in beauty pageants, and at last, stumbling upon her calling. An off-duty cop with a camera, Jerry (Kevin Carroll), invites her to pose on the beach. A crowd gathers and then a uniformed cop, displeased that she’s white and he’s black; Jerry starts to apologize, but Bettie soothes him, “They’re just prejudiced. I used to be but I grew up and got over it.” (The girl’s a saint.) Jerry smiles, grateful for her kindness, and when they regroup in his studio, he comes up with tricks for “better” photos, padding for her bikini top and a new haircut — Bettie’s signature bangs, to cut the shine on her “high round forehead.”
Harron’s movie juxtaposes Bettie’s personal and performative virtuousness with the smarminess of other early photographers, a men’s “club” who pay to snap pictures of barely clothed models. “I saw it! I saw beaver!” gasps one to another, and it’s clear you’re in the land of perpetual adolescents, thrilled like Beavis and Butt-head over the mere hint of genitalia. “It takes all types to make a world,” Paula tells Bettie, offering a kind of instruction on self-preservation while also teaching her to pose for cheesecake, wear vinyl, and wield whips. “What kind of types?” asks Bettie, ever the naof, and ever lovely for it. When the Klaws’ friend and director/designer John Willie (Jared Harris) wonders what Jesus might think about what Bettie’s doing, she pauses to ponder, then says she’s been given a gift, to make people happy. As the film illustrates, this means forcing her smile upside down when a customer murmurs nervously, “I want the young lady to look very strict.”
When federal investigation pressures come to bear on the Klaws’ business, Bettie sets off on vacation in sunny Miami — these sections of the mostly black and white film shot in color, suggesting the pulsing, vibrant life of the place. Here she poses for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), an erstwhile model who rejects the gear Bettie’s brought along: I believe the female form can stand on its own,” she says: the perfect model has found her perfect photographer. “This girl has something special,” Bunny notes in voiceover. “When she’s nude she’ doesn’t look naked.” When one of their nude photos ends up on a Florida postcard, with yellow bikini added, Bettie feels like a star, and indeed, she’s dubbed “The Pinup Queen of the Universe.”
Certainly, not everyone loves her celebrity: her family worries that she’s wasted her education (she wanted to go to college, and had the grades for it, but lost a local scholarship), and her boyfriend, serious actor Marvin (Jonathan Woodward) is shocked, shocked! when he learns what’s she’s been doing for money (they’ve met in an acting class, where he avers, “Acting is about truth”). But his stuffy response is set against a fan’s question, “Does it make you sick to see guys like me grovel?” She smiles, of course not, because she’s unphased by such perverse devotions or Marvin’s stern judgments. “Doctors write books about this sort of thing,” he grumbles. “Do you understand what kinds of men buy these photographs?”
For Bettie, it’s “just silliness.” The condemnation and the masturbation both emerge from a lack of imagination, a desire to contain and possess “the female form.” As Bettie works with Paula and Bunny behind the camera, or poses with Maxie (who’s planning her own transition from model to photographer), The Notorious Bettie Page finds in these relationships mutual support, giddy fun, and familial trust. Without conventional melodramatic biopic trappings, the movie doesn’t pretend to decipher any real life Bettie Page (to this day, preaching the gospel). Men can ogle and evaluate all they want. The film’s Bettie is what they’ve made, but she eludes them.