Breaking Bettie's Silence

Witness Borne to the Passion of the Pin Up Queen

Published: Mar 12 2014, 01:01:am

Wednesday, March 12, 2014
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE. Co-written by Guinevere Turner. Music by Marc Suozzo. Co-written and directed by Mary Harron. Running time: 91 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the warning: "frequent nudity."
THE WOMAN SITS IN SILENCE, waiting. Within a hearing room in a New York City federal building, men have gathered to hear evidence and gather testimony. News cameras record the proceedings.
    It is March, 1955. "Senators Launch Smut Probe" is how one newsreel describes the work of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency under chairman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn). Having focused on the influence of comic books the previous year, the diligent senators are now taking on the issue of "pornography."  
    The woman sits outside, waiting in a hallway. She is Bettie Mae Page (Gretchen Mol), 32, and America's pin-up queen. She is of interest to the committee because of her work as a model for Irwin Klaw (Chris Bauer), a fetish photo distributor.
    She sits silent for 12 hours, only to be told her testimony "is no longer necessary . . . they won't need you any more. You can go." Obediently, she pulls on her white gloves and walks quietly into the night.
    Writer-director Mary Harron refuses to remain silent. Unlike the men of Page's generation, Harron wants to hear her testimony, and insists that we hear it in something like her own voice. Co-written with Guinevere Turner, Harron's interpretive biography of The Notorious Bettie Page is a multi-layered look at the life and complex times of the model-turned-missionary.
    The Canadian-born Harron uses Page's day-long wait as a frame for her story of a young woman born with beauty and intelligence in a time and place empty of opportunity. Coming of age in Depression-era Tennessee, she survives by developing her own coping skills.
    In a series of flashbacks, Harron shows us Page enduring apparent sexual abuse from her father, physical abuse from her first husband and an apparent gang rape. (As if in adherence to the motion picture code of the 1940s, the sexual outrages that Harron's Page suffers are implied rather than shown, and never spoken of in dialogue.)
    At the same time, we are shown an increasingly independent woman who, in the absence of any peer support, draws strength from her religious faith, wins academic honours, earns a college degree (in 1944) and knows when to pack her suitcase and move on.
    In 1949, Page moves to New York City, where she encounters the post war camera-club culture — essentially men taking pictures of scantily-clad women — and becomes a sought-after model. Because her ambition is for work as a legitimate performer, she also enrols in the GP acting studio.
    Her modelling success brings her into the orbit of Irwin Klaw and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor), operators of the Movie Star News, a small company that provides speciality products to an exclusive clientele. "Don't ask," Paula says when Bettie expresses curiosity about the extreme costuming required for her photo shoots. "It takes all kinds to make a world."
    Indeed. With the benefit of hindsight, Herron appreciates that Page was living through times of profound social and cultural change. The Page she shows us is innocent and unsophisticated, characteristics that Harron takes cares to distinguish from ignorance and stupidity.     
    The director, whose debut feature I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) told the story of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, finds a different kind of commitment at the heart of Page's journey.
    Bettie believed.
    In two parallel scenes, Bettie offer glimpses into her inner life. In the first, during an acting class, she performs an intense scene from George Bernard Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, one in which her character is in fear for her life.
    Impressed, her drama coach (Austin Pendleton) asks her to "tell the class what you did to find the truth in the lady-in-waiting's emotions."
    Her answer: "I thought of what Jesus might do to me for all my sins."  
    A few minutes later, the scene is a photo shoot for fetish artist John Willie (Jared Harris). For this performance, she stands wearing lingerie, bound and gagged in a crucifixion-like pose. Curious about her declared faith, Willie asks: "What do you think Jesus would think about what you're doing now?"
     Ignoring (or perhaps not noticing the trace of sarcasm in his tone) she answers: "Well, Mr. Willie, I've thought about this quite a bit. I'm not really sure anymore. I think God has given each of us some kind of talent and he wants us to use it. That's why he gave it to us . . .
    "God gave me the talent to pose for pictures, and it seems to make people happy. Well, that can't be a bad thing, can it?" she says.
     According to Harron's screenplay, Page drew her strength of character from the belief that God meant people to be happy. Actress Mol, in a finely nuanced performance, makes us accept Bettie on her own terms. We believe her when she shrugs off her bondage modelling as "just costumes . . . we're just dressing up."
    According to the men in the Senate hearing room, what she does is a bad thing. Because Page had the misfortune to live in a time when such issues were set out in black and white, Harron tells her story in a black-and-white movie, with six brief, significant scenes shot in colour.
    If, as Harron's screenplay suggests, Page found herself in her faith, then the film's colour sequences show us Bettie's own true moments of happiness. Significantly, three of those scenes feature Bettie in performance, as a model, an actress and a dancer.
     The other colour sequences are set in Miami, her own Edenic refuge. There she meets kindred spirit Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), a model-turned-glamour photographer, who shot the Miss January 1955 photos that appeared in the 14th issue of the new Playboy Magazine.
     There, too, Bettie meets Armand (Alejandro Chaban), the man who becomes her second husband.
    Following her dismissal by the Kefauver committee, Bettie packs her bags and again leaves for (full colour) Miami. There she finds a church that fulfills her spiritual needs and she becomes "born again."
    In the film's penultimate scene, she is an evangelical Christian missionary, proselytizing on a city street. Apparently happy, she takes no offence when a flustered male passerby recognizes her as the former Queen of the Pin Ups, and assures her that she need not be ashamed.
    "I'm not ashamed," she says, no longer sitting, no longer silent. "Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, weren't they? When they sinned, they put on clothes."
    In The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron has produced a film that recalls an era steeped in shame. To her credit, she breaks the silence of a remarkable woman who stood unashamed at its centre.

The above is an original  Reeling Back review by Michael Walsh, first published in 2014. For additional information on material featured on this website, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Of course, the real life story of Bettie Page did not end there. As noted in the Afterword to my review of director Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991), she achieved new fame in the 1980s. Among those responsible for igniting interest in her was comic artist (and Rocketeer creator) Dave Stevens. Director Mary Harron, who co-wrote The Notorious Bettie Page with (and for) actress Guinevere Turner, planned to make the film immediately after her debut feature, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). Financing proved a problem, and so she and Turner took on the task of adapting Bret Easton Ellis's nasty novel American Psycho to the screen. Released in 2000, it was enough of a box-office success to make a return to the Page project possible. Among Harron's directing assignments between features was the March 2004 episode of The L Word, a filmed-in-Vancouver television series for which Turner worked as a writer and script editor. Despite being about a teenaged vampire, Harron's most recent feature, the filmed-in-Montreal The Moth Diaries (2011), lacked the characteristic bite of her previous films, according to Variety critic Justin Chang.