Mary Harron's chipper biography The Notorious Bettie Page, which opens today in Toledo, wears white gloves and a smart ensemble (with a brooch, of course) to tell a story of legendary smut - filth so insidious (as one clergyman puts it in the film, testifying before Congress) it will conquer America more completely than Communism ever will. That conquering part, anyway - tough to argue with.
More than 50 years after those Senate subcommittee hearings about the effects of pornography on juvenile delinquency, conducted by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver (played, in a tasty bit of irony, by David "Edward R. Murrow" Straithairn), you're not so likely to receive endless spam about socialism. Hot unauthorized pictures of Jessica Simpson, quite likely. Explicit photos of collective farming, not so much.
Smut, though, is relative.
And if there was ever a model who was able to maintain the balance between Wonder Bread wholesomeness and downtown kink, it was Bettie Page. A small-town girl with a fundamentalist background (also from Tennessee, though the film misses the connection), she indeed favored white gloves. She wore them on her first trip to New York City to become an actress, and later, after she failed, when she wore anything at all, she wore a lot of latex - picture Mary Poppins in bondage gear (or rather, don't).
Sunny and uninhibited, Page became the queen of '50s pin-up couture. A natural brunette, she wore trademark raven-black bangs. She had wide-set eyes and an infectious smile. Sometimes she posed in black underwear and stockings, sometimes in nothing at all; her specialty, however, the thing that made her something of a pop culture secret, was posing in the leather-and-whips pictorials that bookstores would keep under their counter.
In Harron's film, that back-alley art looks, if anything, quaint - store owners have long since placed more graphic stuff alongside Modern Bride and The New Republic - and depravity is indulged with the cheerfulness of a mom carrying a tray of fresh-baked cookies. Shot in black and white (with a Florida sequence in glorious old Technicolor), it reminded me of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, lovingly re-created but reverent and willfully removed from the sweaty reality.
When Bettie poses in underground photo clubs - where women strip to their underwear and men pay for the opportunity to circle them, clicking away all the while - the dirtbags even say "Thank you" and "Turn, please" and "I adored what you did with that riding crop."
If there was a seedy side to the '50s stag-mag scene - and you've got to think there was - we don't see it. The raunch is removed. That's not a criticism. Harron hints at gang rape in Bettie's past, at sexual abuse, failed marriages, broken homes. But she doesn't dwell, and just as well - the dark hints leave no impact, anyway.
Harron - with screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner, who previously collaborated on American Psycho - threw aside the stodgy conventions of the Hollywood biopic, an admirable idea that yields mixed results; if Walk the Line was cut from the cloth of Ray and every E! True Hollywood Story, this feels both familiar and wholly original, if only because it refuses to judge Bettie. It's a hard-won decision.
Ppting for sunshine, Harron sacrifices depth. She does, however, gain a rare honesty: The filmmaker doesn't know Bettie, she's admitting - but then, neither do we.
Only Bettie knows Bettie.
And what we're left with is the story of a woman who felt most at ease simply posing. She gets great pleasure from it and seems never happier, which was her appeal. You may stare at a picture of a model long enough and start wondering about the person in the picture and what they're selling, be it J. Crew or sex. But you may not touch. The same was true for Bettie, who (the picture suggests, provocatively) posed because it was the safest way to make the most men happy. Harron respects that distance.
Again, with mixed results.
The Senate hearings frame the story. It opens with Bettie waiting to testify. She's played by Gretchen Mol - you might remember, she was the next big thing for most of the late '90s, the "It" girl according to Vanity Fair, though it never worked out.
Mol's cheerful, can-do charm finally shines through, perhaps because the film is best at showing us not who Bettie Page was but why people liked her. Mol's achievement is making an image a person, not a symbol of empowerment. She's no hero, and if her lack of conflict (and the film's lack of an obvious point) makes Harron's movie seem inconsequential - Mol plays Bettie as practically impervious to exploitation - that feels altogether intentional.
The image was a person.
Bound and gagged, Bettie asks the photographer to take the rubber ball out of her mouth. He does and she explains that God wants her to do this. It makes people happy. Then the photographer swears.
And she cringes.