Written by Guinevere Turner
Producted by Christine Vachon, Pam Koeffler, Katie Roumel (Killer Films)
Subject headings: pornography; body image; censorship; biography; sexuality; Christianity; costume drama; period drama
Synopsis: “The Notorious Bettie Page” is costume drama that aims to tell the story of the life of postwar pin-up Bettie Page, charting her evolution from Southern salutatorian to salacious star to evangelical Christian. The film opens in a New York City smut store in 1955, as an undercover agent tries (and succeeds) in coaxing the store owner into offering him fetish shots. These shots are the first glimpse we have of Page. The film cuts to Senate hearings on pornography, then to a shot of Page in the lobby, then to Page in church as a young girl. Most of the film is constructed in the form of flashbacks, alternating between Page in the courtroom and Page’s earlier lived experiences. Page is above all a survivor: the film walks us quickly through her childhood and early adulthood: the incestuous relationship between her and her father, her abusive marriage, her flight, a scene in which she is effectively kidnapped and forced to orally service several men, and her subsequent arrival in New York City.
Page’s early life is documented within the first 15 minutes of the film, using a combination of short scenes and montages. The remaining time is devoted to her career as a model. Posing for freelancers, she is portrayed as initiating the move into nude posing—and thoroughly enjoying it. Spending much of her time attending acting class in hopes of a career on stage, Page earns a living on the side by working as a model for fetish photographer Irving Klaw, posing for photos ordered by private customers. As the movie progresses, Page’s poses become increasingly scandalous; meanwhile Irving Klaw comes under increasing legal pressure and finds himself the target of a Senate investigation into pornography. When Klaw’s business is shut down, Page’s work as a model comes to an abrupt halt. A mediocre actress at best, Page is lost—and rediscovers herself at an evening service, born again in Christ. In the last shot featuring Page, we see her fully clothed and preaching scripture in a public park.
Biographically speaking, Harron chooses to focus primarily on the way in which Page comes to understand and perform her sexuality as a woman, both on camera and through her acting. Page’s story is a difficult one, and Harron ably constructs a sympathetic but believable narrative. Page is not presented as an exploited sexual victim nor as a whore; her career as model is treated lightly, even nostalgically—she is portrayed as playfully hamming up the roles. The mood of the film takes its cue from this spirit; political messages (the strongest addressing issues of exploitation, censorship, and feminine identity) are for the most part delivered with subtle humor. And laudably, Harron tries to avoid deviating from Page’s own views when using her character as a mouthpiece for third wave feminist thought—an effort that demonstrates a certain amount of, well, restraint.
Salon.com Review (must watch a brief advertisement to access)
title. The Notorious Bettie Page (Dir. Mary Harron, 2006)
name/date. Gwen Snyder, 31 May 2007
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