The Notorious Bettie Page

BettieA glimpse into sexual awakening and exploration in 1950s America, this film provides a biographical account of legendary pin-up Bettie Page and the controversy surrounding her infamous bondage photographs. Her beauty and significance to the discussion of censorship has since ascended her to the status of cult sexual icon; however, the film fails to depict Page as anything more than this emblem, glossing over the emotion or motivation possibly guiding her actions.


After a brief scene of New York in 1955, the film flashes back to Bettie as a young girl in Tennessee.  As she matures, her mother is opposed to dating of any kind, but she eventually marries a former classmate, Billy Neal.  This union is unhappy and Page decides to move to New York where her modeling begins.  The portrayal of this important event was completely unfulfilling.  With no explanation of her mother’s change of heart or an understanding of the events leading to her divorce, the tone is set that Page is a benign force being swept from one event to another without any articulated reason.

None of her actions are depicted as councious choices on her behalf, but rather just a series of events she becomes wrapped up in. She stumbles into the man that introduces her to pictorial modeling.  This leads to nude photographs which ultimately result in the bondage photography she is most directly associated with.  Bettie has no influence as these transitions occur; she is carried by the causality and is not active in shaping her destiny.  This mindless rise to success makes it difficult to have any emotional investment in this incarnation of Page.

It is not the overly convenient transpiring of these events that creates this emotional distance, but rather the lack of exploration of any motivation Page may have had.  The closest we ever come to a grasp on Bettie’s ideas is through her attempts to reconcile her subversive modeling with her Christian beliefs.  This is not a motivation, however, but rather a rationalization of her actions.  Furthermore, this explanation is proved disingenuous as the film closes with Bettie’s recoil from modeling to devote her life back to Christ.

The source of this flaw is clearly within the script.  Marry Harron and Guinevere Turner’s screenplay is careless, skipping over explanation of events extremely relevant to the shaping of Bettie’s character.  It is devoid of any meaningful dialogue, reaffirming Page as a mere icon while denying her the status of human.  This awkward discourse does not leave much room for powerful performance, but Gretchen Mol is visually so similar to Page that she makes it believable.

Fortunately, Harron’s shortcomings end here, as she does a beautiful job directing the film.  Her framing is artful, producing well balanced and aesthetically engaging shots.  Her use of black and white instills a soft sensuality characteristic of the femme fatale of noir style cinema.  Fixated between this overarching grayscale are sequences of warm, over-saturated, color.  Not only does this use of color, and its absence, help to place this film away from modernity, it excels at giving the film a very seductive overtone. 

The Notorious Bettie Page is an attempt to recount an enormous span of events, but they amount to little.  While the grand jury investigation is perhaps a jab at conservative influence on censorship, its weight is lost amidst the rest of the narrative.  In an interview with Page, she stated that she wants to be remembered as the pin-up queen of the 1950s, not as the aged woman she has become.  However, I find it difficult to believe that the unflattering image of a woman floating unconsciously through her career is quite what she had in mind.