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.

Pages: 1 2


  • Lorin says:

    I understand Harron's intent, but this is still a pretty dull film.

  • Ti says:

    You said: > Not sure how you can make a case for that. The film was inspired by Bettie's life, but is FAR from being about it. The screenplay rewrote her biography and took artistic license to the hilt. That's one of the reasons Bettie Page disliked the film when she viewed it at a private screening at the Playboy Mansion. Examples: The John Willie scene was totally fabricated; there's no evidence that Bettie ever met or posed for John Willie. And don't even get me started on that gang rape scene that never happened as depicted -- or even when it allegedly occurred. One of the greatest disservices done by this film was to "introduce" Bettie to people who were clueless about her life, and those viewers then walked away thinking they were familiar with her history; they had no clue that the film totally manipulated and distorted her life's realities. Hope you'll go see her real story, coming in 2010, when her authorized documentary is released. Meanwhile, check out:

  • [...] Mary Harron’s The Moth Diaries is appropriately titled in more ways than one: Groups of the fluttering, flittery creatures make a dramatic appearance in the story, which is adapted from Rachel Klein’s popular young adult novel about a possible vampire stalking unsuspecting adolescents at an all-girls boarding school. And the picture itself is wispy and translucent – it has no weight or body, and in some ways it feels more like a TV pilot than a feature film, barely substantial enough to fill up the big screen. Even so, it offers glancing pleasures of the atmospheric kind – the impact is the equivalent of a filmy cobweb brushing against your cheek. It tickles more than it bites. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca (Irish actress Sarah Bolger) has just returned to school for the semester. Her father, a poet, committed suicide not long ago, and Rebecca has been haunted by the event. But she’s ready for the new school year, and she’s looking forward to spending lots of time with her classmates, particularly her bestest best friend, Lucie (Sarah Gadon). Their school, formerly a turn-of-the-century luxury hotel, is the kind of place where the grounds are well-manicured and the bathtubs are long and deep – the girls take steamy, soft-focus baths and then shimmy into their long white cotton nighties before drifting off to sleep. [...]