Media : Behind the ball gag 

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New biopic: legendary Page was more than smiles and leather

The Notorious Bettie Page
Dir. Mary Harron; writ. Harron, Guinevere Turner; feat. Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Haris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor(R)

Plenty of models can boast that women across the country copy their hairstyle. But how many can still make the claim after fifty years? Not a lot — and a similarly elite group can rest assured that, decades after the magazines they posed for have gone out of business, men across the world still thrill to their photos.

Welcome to the legend of Bettie Page, whose cultural position may well be unmatched. Once the most-photographed gal in the world, she remains a cherished — ahem — figure. Her willingness to expose herself doesn't explain Bettie's appeal; plenty of nudie cuties, many just as attractive, have faded into history. Page endures thanks to her peculiar mix of sexuality and cheerful innocence: Even when bound and gagged, her eyes wide with feigned panic (many of her photos were made for men with unusual sexual fantasies), she was a bit like a kid playing make-believe.

In this entertaining biopic, director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner do justice to the contradictions and nagging moral issues inherent in Page's career. They give us a heroine whose early experiences with sexual abuse didn't doom her to victimhood; Bettie often goes with the flow as men (and two crucial women) direct her from behind the camera, but ultimately she's the one in charge — whether she's brandishing a riding crop or not.

They also give her plenty of dialogue with which to justify what others might see as conflicts between her line of work and her religious faith. The way Page sees it, Adam and Eve only put on clothes once they became sinners, so why should God mind if she frolics naked on a beach, much less if she poses in stockings and heels?

Gretchen Mol is convincing in the role. While not a ringer for Page physically — women weren't required to put in so many hours at the gym in those days — she's close enough to put the illusion across. More important, the personality Mol invents comes close to living up to the impossible enigma captured on film in the '50s.

Her Bettie is capable and smart (she would have been the valedictorian of her small-town high school, if she hadn't cut one class to rehearse for the school play) but sports a willful veneer of naivité. She fields every pick-up line known to man, and never lets on whether she knows how canned they are.

Despite its sharp script and perfect supporting cast, the film never quite escapes the biopic ghetto. The recent Kinsey told a personal story while giving mid-century sexual controversies a contemporary urgency. But Notorious is more modest in its ambitions, even when its subject throws modesty to the wind.


More by John DeFore

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