The Notorious Bettie Page
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
Here's a way to have guiltless titillation and take a time travel back to the fifties: See The Notorious Bettie Page, a sweet biopic about the most famous pin-up next to Marilyn Monroe. Yes, see a fetchingly dark haired Page be innocently naughty with some outrageously bonding costumes or none at all because Bettie could do it all naively so sincere you might believe she thought her soft sadomasochistic photographs innocent indulgence for nice people.
Evoking the era and ambience of the recent Joseph McCarthy lynch party called Good Night, and Good Luck, this noirish black and white film (splashed now and then with Kodachrome) also plays up the still puritanical American society going after the adventurous libertines who dared to enjoy freedom and a good sneak peek without getting strung out about it all. David Strathairn, who played McCarthy nemesis Ed Murrow, does a straitlaced Senator Estes Kefauver in the framing part of Page's story, interviewing alleged soft pornmeisters while Page sits in the lobby flashing back the life that led to this moment.
Gretchen Mol plays Page with a clear-eyed innocence, compromised in the past by abuse and gang rape, but still believing in her fellow man's benign love of her filmed face and form. Mol's body is perfect for that attitude: shapely but not overgrown, girlish but desirable enough for us to understand why an ordinary man would think her good marriage material but not a slut. Mol plays the embodiment of sex without guile. The Notorious Bettie Page fails only by denying us a look at her emotional life either by herself or with an important man.
"It looks like it'll be a melodrama, but narratively it isn't," says director Mary Harron. "It's more modern, offhand and ambiguous." Harron has without being didactic caught the essence of our romanticized vision of the fifties, which endures as emblem of simpler times, happier homes, and lower-level libidos all waiting for the last half of the century to transform with violence, wars, and neoconservative movements allowing no peek at a body without claiming Jesus would not approve.
From Genesis: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." Neither was Bettie, who when she was naked, never seemed so.
A successfully sweet biopic that titillates. Quite a feat. Quite a lady.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com