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October 31, 2007

DVD Journal: The Notorious Bettie Page

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'd been semi-dreading Mary Harron's biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page." Although I hadn't seen either of her previous films -- "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho" -- I'd read about them, and I knew a little about Harron's background and interests too. Given what I'd picked up, I expected the Bettie Page film to be theoretical, intellectual, post-modern, and "daring" in predictable leftie-feminist, if (yawn) Sex Positive, ways.

In other words: While the Bettie Page subject matter certainly had its juicy appeal, I was certain that the film would be a dreary exercise in PC edginess. But I do love Gretchen Mol, who stars as Bettie Page ... The price of a used DVD kept creeping down ... When it hit six bucks, I couldn't resist any longer. The One-Click button was pounced on, and The Wife and I settled in to watch the film.


Was I ever surprised. Although the film is nothing if not post-modern in style, its spirit is flat-out appreciative. I'm sure a determined intellectual could roll up his sleeves and tease a lot of mallarkey about "power" and "gender" out from the film, but those words don't indicate how the film actually plays and feels. It's a genuinely sweet, touching, and sexy picture: open to contradictions, unresolved, and full of charm and humor while never surrendering to naivete.

Hey, a few films that I was reminded of as I watched "The Notorious Bettie Page":

  • "Fallen Champ," Barbara Kopple's documentary about the boxer Mike Tyson. Kopple may be the most PBS person on the face of the planet. But she's also talented, and in this project at least was able to let go of her usual agenda and give over to her subject matter. The result is a complex and moving look at Tyson, one that's not at all marred by feminist limitations.

  • "Auto Focus," Paul Schrader's movie about the TV actor Bob Crane. Like Harron's film, "Auto Focus" has an off-off-Broadway, quotes-around-everything, po-mo quality. (I wrote about the Schrader picture here.) But Schrader took a jaunty and disengaged tone. There was nothing about Bob Crane that he could respect, or that he even seemed to find interesting. By contrast, Harron (with co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and Gretchen Mol) takes on Bettie Page with real commitment.

  • "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," Francis Girard's very unusual biopic of the Canadian pianist, which features a fractured, multifaceted point of view. While it's far more determinedly experimental than "Bettie Page," it's full of a similar kind of humor and wonder.

  • "Ed Wood," Tim Burton's biopic about the legendarily untalented director of such works as "Glen or Glenda" and "Plan Nine from Outer Space." In his picture, Burton moves through irony and camp to a state of sincere admiration. In "Bettie Page" Mary Harron moves through po-mo into something genuinely loving too.

One quick caveat: "Bettie Page" doesn't have a lot of dramatic drive. The Wife -- a dramatic-drive junkie -- liked the film a lot but was maybe a touch less enthusiastic about it than I was.

But the absence of narrative drive ... Well, that isn't just a typical biopic pitfall, it often comes along with post-modernism, doesn't it? After all, it's fun to disassemble things. Yanking things apart leaves you with a bunch of pieces that you can play with and collage together as you see fit -- infantile bliss. But taking the spine out of a form also leaves you with a challenge: On what basis do you reassemble all these glittering pieces? (Assuming you do want to construct something positive, of course.) If narrative drive is out of the question -- and post-modernism usually characterizes traditional narrative drive as phallic and oppressive, if not actually fascist -- then on what can you build a film (or a book, or whatever)?

The answer that many people using po-mo approaches come up with is political: Structure your work as a point-making PC argument and you've got yourself something that a certain class of people will automatically applaud, or at least pat you on the head for. It's a safe if boring choice.

Harron and her posse take a riskier tack. Their film is basically a portrait of a specific woman, and of the place and time where her gift emerged and resonated. Scenes aren't placed where they are for the sake of suspense or plot, let alone politics: They're included for compositional reasons. Harron doesn't knit the film together with a set of ideas but with what seems like a genuinely intuitive hunch about Bettie Page's character -- that the sex star whose portrait is being presented was and is a primarily spiritual person.

A pause for those visitors who aren't familiar with the Bettie Page saga. Bettie Page, who is now in her 80s and lives in California, was one of the pinup queens of the 1950s. She grew up poor in the South in the '30s and '40s. Cursed with an abusive father and an unloving mother, she split home early, traveled to California and Haiti, and wound up in New York City, where she studied acting and worked in an office.

One day, while she was visiting the beach, an amateur photographer asked if he could take her photo. The pictures were a smash. Bettie loved the camera, and the camera loved her back ten times over.


Soon Bettie was making a decent income from posing for one of the era's distinctive cultural phenomena: "camera clubs" -- groups of amateur shutterbugs who liked to get together and shoot photos of sexy models. Bettie also began posing professionally for sexy commercial shots -- bondage sessions, and girl-wrestling sessions too. She became one of the most popular covergirls of the 1950s, although not in the mainstream press; she appeared in an early issue of Playboy ...

Then, after seven years of modeling, she dropped out. Her photos became a footnote, her small bit of fame evaporated. She disappeared, and life lost track of her.

In the late '70s, though, some hipsters and trash-culture connoisseurs rediscovered Bettie Page. 'Zine-publishers traded finds, comic-book artists lifted her visuals, momentum and interest built ...

By the mid-'80s and on into the '90s -- during the height of the crazy-PC years, come to think of it -- a real Bettie Page industry had taken on life. Comic book and 'zine creators celebrated Bettie's looks and spunk. It wasn't purely a boy thing either. Riott Grrls loved Bettie as much as the geeks did. Punkettes were inspired by her fun-loving air, and they modeled their own black hair, their bangs, and their irreverent attitudes on her.

The comics creator Dave Stevens featured Bettie Page as a character in his stories; when a big-budget film was made of Stevens' "Rocketeer" in 1991, the Bettie character was played by no less than Jennifer Connelly. Uma Thurman's insolent and stylized look in "Pulp Fiction"? Part of that came from Anna Karina and part from Louise Brooks -- but part came from Bettie Page. The contemporary sex writer Violet Blue? She's doing a Bettie Page too.

"The Notorious Bettie Page" covers Bettie's life from youth until shortly after her disappearance from the modeling scene, when she discovered Jesus and devoted herself to Him. The story the film tells is about how one girl accidentally became an underground star. It has a comic, freewheeling tone about how this came about -- Bettie really did just fall into it. For instance, Irving and Paula Klaw -- the brother and sister whose bondage-photo business sold a lot of Bettie images -- are presented as hustling and anxious but likable vulgarians. Bettie, we're meant to understand, found a comfy, loving home with Irving and Paula.

Harron also has fun contrasting the high-toned acting classes Bettie attended with the low-rent camera-club and bondage sessions she made her money at. The contrast between respectability and the underbelly, between striving propriety and easy sex, is part of the point of the film, in fact. That was the era, for one thing. Also: Although many people had moral and social qualms about what she did to make money, Bettie herself never saw anything evil in her sex-modeling career.

Another surprise: The film is as generous towards the male characters as it is towards Bettie. Harron and Turner may be funny and satirical about these eager horndogs, but they're sympathetic too. They don't view guys as pigs just for feeling a thrill when they look at a pretty girl, or for wanting to see more of her either. The filmmakers understand how important sex and turn-ons are to guys. OK, maybe 20 percent of the men are creeps, or really have no idea how to behave when aroused. (Would any man disagree?) But the other 80% genuinely adore Bettie's beauty, or at least the lovely feelings of arousal and enthusiasm that she inspires in them. And they prize her game willingness to play along.

I was reminded a little in this of the lesbian reaction to "Basic Instinct." Do you recall that episode? When "Basic Instinct" was filming and then when it was released there was a huge wave of PC outrage. The Sharon Stone character loved women, and she was dangerous, if not a murderer -- talk about doing damage to the image of the homosexual community! But the carrying-on quickly died down. It sputtered out mostly because lesbians -- who, the reasoning went, ought to have been harmed and annoyed by the film -- in fact loved it once they got a chance to see it. They found Sharon Stone's character unbelievably sexy, and they found the film a major turn-on. The happy lesbians told the outraged gay guys to buzz off, basically.

(Lesbians may be notorious for letting the sexual spark die; in fact, I learned about the phenomenon known as "LBD" -- Lesbian Bed Death -- from a lesbian friend. But some of them -- Camille Paglia, Guinevere Turner, that "Basic Instinct"-lovin' crowd -- really do know what they like. They have a real respect for arousal, and for what arouses them. I wrote about "Basic Instinct" here.)

"Bettie Page" delivers a lot in the way of good ol' entertainment value, if of a low-budget sort. The photography and set design do a great job of contrasting Look-and-Life, crisp overbrightness with moody Robert Frank glumness. The songs and music -- by the likes of Julie London, Hank Ballard, and Charles Mingus -- are superbly chosen. The snapshots of life on the road, in Florida, and in Greenwich Village are a photo-album of '50s-era America. Harron occasionally breaks into passages of graphics and stills -- collage-like, presentational scenes and montages that are like something out of a kooky musical.

Harron shows a wonderfully enthusiastic rapport with her performers, who turn in a lot of amusingly-drawn performances. David Straithairn is a droll standout as Estes Kefauver, running a Senate inquiry on smut. So is Lili Taylor, who plays Paula Klaw as an earthy worrywart, and Austin Pendleton, who does a brilliant little riff on the acting-teacher legend Herbert Berghof.

But the film's fate turns on Gretchen Mol -- and Gretchen really delivers. Boy does she ever. She gives what used to be called the performance of a lifetime: no attitude, no defences, no irony. She isn't commenting on anything; she's bringing Bettie to full, blossoming life.

Gretchen connects with the fizz, the exuberance, and the questing confusion of Bettie, and then channels it. She makes us really understand that for Bettie, her beauty and her ease and nakedness before the camera was a gift from God. We accept that this was a woman who -- whatever her other talents -- realized herself most fully as a nude model. That was the way she delivered her portion of divinity to the rest of us. Demented? Perhaps. OK, quite possibly. But when the camera is turned on Bettie, and especially when the clothing comes off, who's to disagree with the idea that God is in the house?


Gretchen's work is lushly emotional: radiant and translucent -- pure sex and pure God all at once. It doesn't hurt that, in addition to being a gifted performer, Gretchen's a beauty of a physical type that you don't see in films often these days -- a cutiepie face on a pinup's body. And she has the talent and the skills to play both the fizz and the darker shades too. The film has a few moments when Bettie hits an emotional wall, and Mol is very touching in them. In one, the pinup-turned-photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) mentions that Playboy doesn't want any models over 25 years old. Bettie, who is by now in her early 30s, has a moment's glum thought about that one. Then she's back to twinkling for Bunny's camera. Gretchen nails the emotional turn cleanly and firmly.

Since I almost never get a chance to enjoy a film -- let alone discuss it -- partly for what it says, I'm going to indulge myself now. "Bettie Page" makes -- well, embodies is more like it -- one major point that is completely simpatico to my view own of American art. Namely: You never know where it's coming from. Oftentimes you have no idea if what you're dealing with is art at all.

In the film, Bettie is shown trying to make it as a straight actor. That's her serious thing. She's a country girl, but she hangs out with bohemians -- people doing their utmost to express themselves and to "make art." Yet what is it that has actually gone down in history? Photos of Bettie in bondage gear, of Bettie nude on a beach, of Bettie pretending to wrestle with and spank another girl. Who even knows who took most of those photos? Meanwhile 99% of the self-conscious self-expression has vanished. Of course, so has 99% of the populist trash.

You can almost hear Mary Harron saying something like: "Goddamit America, why are we so bad at recognizing what's great about our daffy culture? Why does it so often take us 50 years to catch up with what's of worth that we've produced?" And: "Why are we so hung up on respectability? Why do we overindulge serious crap while we dismiss and look down on what gives us actual pleasure?"

(My own posting about how zany American art is, and about how we often do our best work when we're being unselfconscious and unaffected -- sometimes when we aren't even paying attention -- is here.)

Bettie was magical for a few years. Whatever it was that she had and that she gave, it worked. She bubbled, she charmed, she aroused, she made an impact. How wonderful it was that cameras were able to capture some of what she had to offer, and that people responded to it too.

Er, I suppose the moment has come to say that Bettie Page was no role model. She seemed to embody carefree good times, innocence, sweetness -- fun! But in actual fact, her life has mostly been a lot of serious no-fun. Once the modeling days were over, there followed broken marriages, crackups, a diagnosis of schizophrenia ... Bettie even seems to have had an affinity for knives and an aversion to landladies. When, in the early '90s, the actual Bettie first got wind that a Bettie Page revival was in process, she was serving a ten-year sentence in the loony bin for aggravated assault.

So don't go and do likewise, kids, at least not in real life. (Fantasy and playacting? That's another story.) Let's just state it flat-out: People who seem hyper-vivid and super-exciting often are a bit nuts. People who radiate a far-out sexual gift often seem to be too. That ability to live it out in public, to excite, and to "project"? Often the people who have it are seriously damaged, or unstable, or even beyond unstable. They're usually borderline personalities, in fact -- exhibitionists with serious issues. Even if they succeed at burning double-bright for a short time, collapse and deterioration later on are virtually guaranteed.

What should the rest of us make of these hyper-vivid crazies? It's a tough question. Get involved with them -- and watch your own sanity erode. Applaud 'em -- and worry that you're encouraging the craziness. Shun 'em -- and, well, isn't that kind of cruel? After all, what else do these people have to contribute? I don't know that I have much of an answer. But I sure enjoy looking at pictures of Bettie Page.

Hey, because I enjoyed surfing around after watching the film:

* Here's a rarity: a hard-to-find TV interview with Bettie from 1996. "I sometimes imagined the camera was my boyfriend," she tells Tim Estiloz.

* Here's a sensible and revealing quote from a Nerve interview with Mary Harron:

"Clearly Bettie is a very inspiring figure to young women because she had a strong independent streak. She did what she wanted to do and she wasn't just doing it for men. . . But I think it's a huge mistake to think of her as a conscious feminist heroine. As far as I can see, she didn't have an agenda, ever. She just followed her own path unconsciously. I don't think she thought of herself as a rebel in any way. She was kind of in her own world of dress-up."

Another telling bit from the same interview::

"It sounds kind of pretentious, but I think of the film like a little poem or song. The original title was The Ballad of Bettie Page."

* Fun to see Herron speaking well of New York City’s neo-burlesque movement, by the way. I like it too. The short film that the Wife and I helped make overlaps some with the neo-burlesque crowd. I wrote five postings about making the film -- yikes. You can get to them all from this posting.

* Molly Crabapple, a saucey young illustator who wrote a number of columns for 2Blowhards about working as a nude model (here, here, here), has herself become a fixture on the neoburlesque scene. Some supercute pix of Molly can be enjoyed here. In a q&a, Jewcy's Ken Mondschein asks Molly if she ever dreams of having a big art opening in Chelsea, NYC's hot art district. Molly's response: "Heavens, it sure would suck to need a stiff, boring opening for validation. As long as smart, interesting people like my work, and have the cash to keep me in style, Chelsea can go suck it." Attagirl.

* Here's a nice passage from an interview with Gretchen Mol.

"That was the key to her talent in front of the camera, that complete, healthy attitude about her own nakedness, the lack of shame, and also knowing that she was able to create that in front of the camera. She had this sort of bubble around her there, this boundary that, maybe in her personal life, she wasn't as successful with."

* Here's Gretchen's usual look.

* Here's a video piece about the movie that includes some footage of Mary and Gretchen.

* Here's the Bettie Page Fanclub.

* Bettie Page on MySpace.

* Download a Bettie Page desktop wallpaper for your computer.

* Bettie discusses her "dark years" with Playboy.

* A blog devoted to Bettie Page.

* Here's what's said to be the last pinups ever shot of Bettie Page.

* John Michlig summarizes Page's crazy (and dangerous) years.

* Do a Search at Amazon and you'll turn up lots of DVDs of Bettie; do a Search at YouTube and you'll turn up riches too.

* Here's the biography that Bettie collaborated on.

* Robert Foster's biography of Bettie is the warts-and-all one.

* Buy a Bettie Page wig.

* Here are Bunny Yeager's famous "Jungle Photos" of Bettie Page.

A final thought: We often scapegoat what turns us on. I don't understand that urge myself. Where does it come from? As far as I'm concerned, feelings of arousal are 1) pleasant, and 2) to be relished, 3) not infinite. They're precious, in other words. The people, the situations, and the works of culture that give us pleasant feelings of arousal -- why aren't they to be cherished and respected? Just because the kiddies have to be be protected from them?

An a propos passage from the Playboy talk with Bettie:

PLAYBOY: One critic wrote that your appeal came from low self-esteem. You tried so hard to please the camera, he said.

PAGE: What's low about that? To please the camera -- isn't that a good thing?

I think it's a pretty wonderful thing myself.



posted by Michael at October 31, 2007


"But I sure enjoy looking at pictures of Bettie Page."

Bettie Page doesn't turn me on at all, and since her minor celebrityhood seems dependent on her sex appeal and little else, I find nothing else about her interesting. Making a biopic about her seems as pointless as making a biopic about whoever was the Playboy Playmate for January 1961.

I watched about 15 minutes of the Page biopic on HBO one night and it didn't interest me in seeing more. Bettie Page came off in the film as someone who was either spectacularly lacking in self-awareness or a complete vacuum. Auto Focus and The Notorious Bettie Page strike me as very similar films. Their subjects had no interior life but became famous for being scandalous. Both films strike me as exercises in exploitation and titillation. They certainly don't offer much else, unless it's the falseness of the candy-colored period recreation, which I'm getting mighty tired of by now.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 31, 2007 8:05 PM

I like looking at pictures of Bettie Page too. She doesn't so much turn me on as take my breath away. Esp. the pic where she's on the beach naked, laughing with the utterly unselfconscious joy of the beautiful woman who knows she's beautiful, and who just loves offering her beauty openly and shamelessly for the pleasure of others.

There's a kind of genius in that, I think. And like some geniuses she was dumb perhaps, lacking in self-awareness, sure. But she was a genius, the real deal, at giving pleasure to those who know what beauty is, and who more importantly know how to see it when it's right in front of their eyes. Imagine, a genius at giving pleasure! I wish we had more of them, myself.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 31, 2007 9:32 PM

I was reminded a little in this of the lesbian reaction to "Basic Instinct." Do you recall that episode?

Basic Instinct ... the movie whose VHS and DVD versions have been slo-mo'ed and freeze-framed more than any movie in history.

Yes, for that scene.

Posted by: Peter on October 31, 2007 9:53 PM

Sometimes it's necessary to shun borderline personalities to protect oneself. It's far less dangerous to associate with outright schizophrenics, who are simply sad, than with these seductive, near-sociopathic "borderlines" whose beauty and charm cannot compensate for their ruthlessness. Watch out: seduction is their metier, and if they sense resistance they may redouble their efforts to make a conquest of you. I'd be especially careful of those who make you feel "cruel" for avoiding them: they are often the ones most skilled at manipulation. I say that as one who is quite good at getting on with all kinds of difficult, needy, or demanding people.

Posted by: alias clio on November 1, 2007 7:18 AM

What an absolutely wild character!

I've known a few women with this bent. The music biz is a good place to meet them. My late wife, Myrna, resembled Bettie in many ways, minus the knife threats and the mental illness.

I'm not sure that we really "scapegoat" such women. The battle between the spirit and the flesh gets played out at its extreme here, and this battle really does invoke the demons as well as the angels.

Myrna also loved to show her body, and her body was an astonishing work of art. Although Myrna was also simply motivated by a desire to please people (especially men) with her beauty, other people (particularly women) usually saw things in a very different light.

Women's sexual morality is infused with jealousy. My life with Myrna brought home a very strange truth to me. Women with incredibly beautiful bodies enjoy showing themselves. Women who aren't so pretty think it's immoral for women to show themselves. In other words, plain women hate the competition presented by pretty women.

I haven't read the bio or seen the movie, but it looks to me like Bettie's real battle was with other women.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 1, 2007 8:34 AM

Your phrase about the camera loving her back brings up a question I've thought about on and off: this happens, but how? We've all seen group photos where the same one or two people just leap out, time after time.

Whatever the quality, Betty Page definitely had it. Perhaps it has something to do with treating the camera as a person rather than an object. I've heard that people who come across well on television are able to do that, giving the viewer the nonverbal cues that add up to a good impression.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 1, 2007 1:33 PM

"...a cutiepie face on a pinup's body..."

I don't think that will ever really go out of style, at least out here in the heartland, away from the big city, where folks make stuff way too complicated.

Posted by: Lex on November 1, 2007 2:02 PM

I saw the Joy Division singer Ian Curtis' biopic "Control" last night. It's similar to "The Notorious Betty Page" in that both movies are well-made, stylized films about cult figures whose lives don't really add up to very much. Betty eventually went into evangelism; Curtis killed himself at 23 because he was depressed. Ultimately, these films add nothing to their stories. But they do, I should add, provide us with great performances from the lead actors.

Posted by: american fez on November 2, 2007 2:19 PM

Didn't like this movie much, but Mol certainly went for it and looked great doing so. And yeah, it is very similar to Auto Focus in tone and subject matter.

ST, you really are a piece of work.

Posted by: the patriarch on November 5, 2007 7:45 PM

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