Notorious Betty Page, The

dir: Mary Harron
[img_assist|nid=1220|title=Notorious for very good reasons|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=677]
It's a crime that it's taken this flick so long to get distribution in Australia, because this really contained probably the best performance by an actress in a film released in 2006. Sure, there's no way Gretchen Mol could have beat the murderous juggernaut that was Helen Mirren, but she deserved some recognition at least. It's only been released here yesterday (8/3/2007), and will probably have an ignominious two-week run before disappearing into DVD obscurity.

Which isn't the worst fate in the world. It's kind of appropriate, considering the subject matter. And what is the subject? Why, it's the notorious Bettie Page, of course!

Bettie Page, for her time, was probably the main lust object and idealised non-attainable masturbation aid for squillions of men, lonely and otherwise, across America. She has probably been responsible for more shameful, furtive, blind-making male orgasms than Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary combined.

But practically no-one could tell you anything about her apart from the fact that she was in millions of smutty, smutty pictures.

She's not a real person: she is an icon. An icon loses its origins and enters the realm of the purely symbolic at the point where the line between the source and the image disappears. All you can glean is in the expression on the face, the stance used to playfully hold the whip, with nothing else as background. As symbol, not person, she comes to symbolise a pure, perversely innocent sexuality to the masses.

Even when she was decked out in the most cumbersome and painful fetish wear on the planet, there was something about her which will make her memorable long after Anna Nicole Smith's breast implants have finally broken down in her grave. Which should be thousands of years from now.

As the film alludes to with the title, sure, she was infamous, but none of the jerk-offs jerking off to her knew anything about her. You can't really call the 50s an innocent time, but it's not like nudity, smut imagery or boobies were invented then. But it was a strange time where the normally Puritanical States was still trying to stem the tide in terms of what the US would become: the biggest producer and consumer of smut in the world. USA! USA! USA!

Born in the 20s to middle class hillbillies in Tennessee, Page, ably played by Gretchen Mol, an actress who I've never liked in anything before, is a very attractive and naïve girl who often gets into trouble because of her trusting nature. She is not unintelligent by any stretch, which is the easiest fall back assumption anyone could make about someone who had that many photos taken of with her kit off. She was top of the class in high school, finished college as well, and was good with people even if she preferred her own company most of the time.

She possesses a quality that would lead to misery in her personal life and minor success in her professional life: whilst people found her appearance compelling, they couldn't take her that seriously because of her sweet nature. More than once a character in the film is perplexed by the paradoxes that Bettie expresses, but they don't arise from a weak mind.

She was a woman of faith, a devout Christian, who couldn't see where the sin was in getting her gear off, and knowingly giving pleasure to the people who feverishly flagellated themselves over her images.

A lying guy with a camera, as are all of them, convinces her to change her hairstyle into the trademark Bettie Page look (with the fringe) and seals her place in history. She graduates to photo clubs, where enthusiasts pay for the honour of photographing her (clothed) in different poses. From there she progresses through the world of so- called cheesecake shots to becoming America's favourite pin-up girl, and even further into the darker world of fetish photography.

See, talking about this kind of material these days seems commonplace, practically banal. There are millions of skin mags and porno mags produced in most countries around the world, either legally or illegally. The magic of the internet provides even more pictures of naked people doing whatever to themselves, each other, to the family pet and with various bits of furniture. The massive demand means there's a massive supply, with seemingly every other woman in the States at least getting her kit off in order to make some extra cash to be able to afford the tattoos she wants, or that pricey mobile phone or worthless but expensive designer accessory.

And there's plenty of people just giving it away for free, with their own sites, web cams and digital shots, when, in many cases, no one is even asking for it.

When exhibitionism is the norm. I guess it's harder to imagine a time where one woman could dominate the visual / sexual consciousness of a nation, but how else to explain her power and longevity?

This film doesn't; it can't, entirely, but the masterful way Gretchen Mol captures the playfulness and ungainly charm with which Page approached her 'work' is just fascinating. Apart from nailing the look, she manages to represent the mysterious quality that led to her being the most sought-after pin up girl in the universe.

When she starts doing nudey work, it's a perfectly natural transition for her, and she approaches it with such joy that it really becomes mystifying. There is nothing sexual to her about this stuff. Although the film indicates abuse at the hands of her father, and a hideous assault by a group of men in her younger days, and rough marriages, her work doesn't possess that trademark 'country girl getting off the bus dreaming of being a movie star gets forced into life of porn by evil men' storyline.

Once she graduates to doing bondage photography, it's as natural and as much of a lark as any of her other work. Even if it may look completely insane to those of us not part of that scene. Naked attractive women I understand the appeal of. A woman wearing braces and restraints crawling around on the ground in a painful way I do not understand the appeal of.

But I'm just simple that way. Furthermore, she remains as much of an enigma at the end as she is at the beginning; a sweet, naïve but smart girl who has countless pictures taken of her in the all-together but who doesn't drink or smoke, have an extravagant sex life, and who still loves the baby Jesus. It's enough to present the enigma of an icon without having to deconstruct it, at least in this case.

A married couple, Paula and Irving Klaw, played by Lily Taylor and Chris Bauer, produce made-to-order stuff for wealthy clients who hunger for women who wear tight corsets or impossibly high stilettos, amongst other fetishes. They run afoul of the Senate, which is trying to stamp out the evil such photography and pursuits represent, leading to Senate hearings over why a teenage kid accidentally killed himself with that whole autoerotic asphyxiation thing.

Bettie is involved, if only tangentially, since she is the model in most of the works the Senate is trying to burn, baby, burn. The legal stuff doesn't comprise much of the film's length, so don't be expecting the hours and hours of court time of something like The People Versus Larry Flynt. Thank Satan for that.

As strong as the central performance is, there is great deal left unexplained or unarticulated at film's end. Page, who is still alive today, was always an intensely private person, and as such had nothing to do with the film. Most of it was based on a book written by Richard Foster, who spoke to her around the time when there'd been a resurgence in Bettie Page fandom, and when a legal eagle had explained to her how much money she was probably owed. Before that she'd been broke and living in share housing. At her age! After bringing pleasure to so many people! It's a travesty.

See, as the film clearly portrays, for all the shots taken of her and for all the (virtual) pleasure she gave countless men, she never made any money out of it. This isn't the rags to riches to rags story that generally accompanies the American Dream, and therefore it's a bit more interesting to me than the usual biopic.

Despite believing that director Mary Herron (previously known for I Shot Andy Warhol and the infamous American Psycho adaptation), screenwriter Guinevere Turner and the actors involved have done an
excellent job telling Page's story, it's a very hard movie to recommend to anyone. Those expecting a sea of salacious sleaze and sexuality will be profoundly disappointed, because it's a film lacking in any of that. Those expecting a deep and revealing examination of her life and what made her tick might also be disappointed. But it does go some way towards capturing the essence of what made her the dark angel of so many people's dreams and fantasies.

9 times that woman puts the strumpets of today to shame out of 10

"How do you feel about your fans, Ms Page? Don't you just want to step on them, crush them?"
"Well, uh, no, not really." The Notorious Betty Page.