For those who have never heard of Bettie Page she was the darling of the 50's modelling industry, a true pin up girl who became notorious for featuring in fetish photos and the sort of images which back then were considered to be pornographic. All of this may lead you to think that Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page" may be a movie which would revel in the seedy side of Bettie's life, focussing on the fetish photography and nudity in a sense of titillation. But it is anything but, it is a sensitive and fun biopic focusing on Bettie herself, the innocence of this gorgeous woman who did not see what she did as being seedy but natural and fun.
The movie although technically a biopic doesn't always feel like one, especially in the early scenes where the landscape of the 50's is explored with men in rain jackets going into dark shops to look through smut magazines from a pre-playboy era. It acknowledges the era, the senate hearings into pornography where one of Bettie's photographers Irvin Klaw was investigated. It acknowledges the feelings of the era where a pin up could become famous within certain circles and the glamorous party life style which went with being a model. It's all very well put together to really set the scene which is made all the more apparent by the use of stock footage and shooting predominantly in black & white. It's hard to decipher what is stock and what is new making it flow effortlessly, only occasionally interrupted by some colour to highlight a point.
But the biopic side of the movie is equally as good, captivating you with the story of Bettie demonstrating that despite being a pin up girl for fetish fans she was in fact quite innocent, not so much naive just that she enjoyed doing the then risqué photo shoots and didn't feel that what she did was in any way seedy. It's an interesting insight into this beautiful woman who could rationalize that what she was doing was just providing a service for those with special requirements often stating that "Adam & Eve" were in fact naked before they sinned. What's interesting is that in comparison to today's porn industry the sort of posing which Bettie took part in, the faux bondage scenes and occasional nude shoots were tame especially by today's more explicit standards.
As with all biopics "The Notorious Bettie Page" rightly delves into the life of Bettie before she became famous showing or rather suggesting that as a child she was abused, had a violent teenage marriage and was also gang raped, all of which is never shown but leaving you in no doubt what happened to the young Bettie. But what is refreshing is that it never tries to lay blame on these events as to why Bettie went down the road of the pin up girl. In fact there is no sense that Bettie ever felt tarnished by these events, more that they happened in the past and had no effect on her sense of fun in life. How real that was only Bettie would have known, but it makes a pleasant change from the norm where movies focus on these past issues to explain something in a cause and effect like manner.
Whilst there are numerous solid performances from all the cast such as Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw, Lili Taylor as Paula Klaw and David Strathairn as Estes Kefauver the star of the movie is rightly Gretchen Mol who looks so much like Bettie Page that if you didn't know better you would have said it was Bettie herself. But away from being physically similar it is the way that Mol creates her character, you get that real sense of fun, inhibition and playfulness which Bettie possessed as well as the sense of humour. It's a performance which Mol should be remarkably proud of, capturing everything about this famous woman and recreating it for a new cinema going public.
What this all boils down to is that "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a remarkable biopic, both entertaining and informative. It manages to delve into what then would have been the seedy world of fetish modelling yet never expresses an opinion on whether it was right or wrong, just showing you that world at that time. Instead we get a sensitive and often fun look into the life of Bettie Page a woman who although remarkably innocent was in no way naive and although she happily showed off her body never did it feeling that what she was doing was seedy. It is certainly not the cheep titillation that it could quite easily turned into considering the provocative subject matter.