Director Mary Harron Reflects on the Ecstatic, Underrated Notorious Bettie Page
Exhausted the classic canon? Fed up with the current cinema of remakes, reboots and reimaginings? This week The Cold Case talks to Mary Harron about her 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page -- the director's woefully underappreciated, terrifically acted antidote to the standard-issue Hollywood biopic.
When it opens with a police sting, moody black-and-white cinematography, the oppressive atmosphere of a 1950s Capitol Hill witch hunt and David Strathhairn's grave face, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled upon an extra-special cut of Good Night, and Good Luck. Rather, this is Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page, which, while it was made the same year and tackled similar themes, garnered far less attention than George Clooney's six-times-Oscar nominated critical darling. Not to take anything away from the brilliant-if-thundering Good Night, but Bettie Page is a kinder, gentler examination of what happens when someone's caught in the collision of freedom of speech and the censorial (if perhaps well-intentioned) mid-century mindset.
From outside that 1955 D.C. Senate sub-committee, where Gretchen Mol's prim Bettie waits patiently to testify, we flash back to 1936-era Nashville, dropping in on her good Christian upbringing (which nevertheless didn't preclude her father molesting her). We then jump forward: Bettie flees into an abusive marriage, eventually escaping to the city, where she suffers further brutalization. From there, somehow maintaining her positive disposition, Bettie moves to New York City and, while trying to make it as an actress, discovers her God-given talent for posing -- first for magazines, then as a pin-up, and finally in the fetish and bondage media that'd make her a pop-culture icon for more than half a century.
With such a subject, you might expect a dank, grim little film along the lines of Paul Schrader's own twisted '50s-culture paean Auto Focus. That Harron's previous credits were I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho might add to the edgy anticipation. But with Mol's terrific incarnation, Bettie Page -- both the character and the film -- offers a resolutely sunny character despite the travails. While not simple, her Bettie is also certainly not complex, seemingly unaware of how "special customers" use the pictures and 8-and-16mm movies of her and her friends bound and gagged and trussed and pretending to spank each other.
The moralists were outraged, and even now you're not going to see Bettie's greatest hits in the mainstream -- co-opted, say, into shilling for Ralph Lauren or Manolo Blahnik. (Not yet, anyway.) But as the photos and movies also don't feature men or explicit sexual content, they, along with Bettie, retain a pre-corporate-media innocence, especially compared with what rolls off today's aggressive, joyless and no-holes-barred sensuality marketing and pornographic assembly lines.
But what's really interesting is where Harron doesn't take Bettie's life. The director and her screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner don't succumb to the temptation to mess with what happened to make events more "dramatic." So Bettie never gets to testify before Strathairn's politician, her return to Christianity is depicted as wholly in keeping with a faith she's never renounced, and we stop short of seeing the breakdown she suffered many years later. Perhaps that integrity -- its rejection of conventional biopic standards -- is part of what kept Harron's film from finding traction among viewers and critics in 2005.
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