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The Notorious Bettie Page Review

By Joe Lozito

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If nothing else, "The Notorious Bettie Page" serves as an indication of how times change. The film, which concentrates on the short period in the mid-50s when Ms. Page became "pin-up queen of the universe", spends the majority of its running time staging the photo shoots for which Ms. Page became famous. It's telling that the same imagery of leather-clad vixens, which caused such a stir at the time, can now be reenacted in an R-rated movie with little fanfare. What used to be verboten now seems quaint. And unfortunately, there isn't much at all that's scandalous in Mary Harron's startingly inert biopic.

Since there is very little "Notorious" about the film, it would seem the same holds true for Ms. Page's life story, though glimpses of abuse at the hands of her father and some leering male predators would indicate otherwise. While I'm glad Ms. Harron - working from a script she co-wrote with Guinevere Turner - concentrates on reenacting some of the pin-up's most famous shoots (the Playboy/Santa hat, the lean over the couch, the Florida postcard), without an emotional story to carry the film, "Notorious" amounts to little more than watching Ms. Mol playing dress up (and un-dress up).

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, the film nearly deserves three stars solely for Ms. Mol's performance which, after a shaky start, quickly evolves from mimicry to embodiment. After a perhaps premature brush with stardom in the late 90s in films like "Rounders", Ms. Mol all but disappeared from the spotlight in the early 00s. With her radiant performance here, she seems poised for a comeback. She possesses not just the physique of Ms. Page, but also the confidence with her body which seems inversely proportional to the amount of clothes she wears. Away from the camera, though, Ms. Mol is stifled by a script that paints the pin-up queen as a naïve Tennessee girl with religious confusion. While there must be some truth in all that, I'm forced to wonder how much of a role the real Ms. Page (who turns 83 this year) played in the research of the film. It's hard to believe the woman who crawled on all fours in a leather bustier and ball gag wasn't mildly more curious about her chosen profession.

Where the film really misses an opportunity is in its depictions of Ms. Page's relationships with men. After a brief first marriage, Ms. Page falls in with an actor who, in the film, never becomes more than a sweet-natured cipher. There are virtually no scenes of substance between the two until a final blow up around the content of a magazine. There's also a brief, odd tryst in Florida with a man Ms. Page effectively picks up off the street.

David Strathairn - in a cameo 180 degrees from his role in "Good Night, and Good Luck" - shows up as Estes Kefauver, the senator (ironically also from Tennessee) who led the anti-pornography hearings in the late-50s around which the film is framed. Mr. Strathairn is always interesting, but he doesn't have much to do here. Performances by Chris Bauer and the reliable Lili Taylor (who also worked with Ms. Harron in "I Shot Andy Warhol") sadly rarely rise above caricature. It's as if each actor wants to say something profound, but the script doesn't support them.

Ms. Harron ("American Psycho") directs the film in glossy black-and-white which emulates the photos for which her subject is so famous but rarely meshes with the grainy, inter-cut stock footage. There are some welcome flashes of color when Ms. Page goes to Miami for a few memorable shoots with the photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). But even watching those scenes gets tiring after a while. It's just a feeling that something about Ms. Page's life, unlike her art, is left underexposed.

What did you think?

Movie title The Notorious Bettie Page
Release year 2006
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Gretchen Mol shines in Mary Harron's startlingly inert biopic of the much-loved 50s pin-up queen.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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