If you can tell a society by its smut, America in the '50s couldn't have been just a Frigidaire of repressive hysteria. Hidden somewhere in the closets of Pleasantville and Peyton Place, after all, was a stack of fetish mags bearing the face and hourglass figure of Bettie Page, and all the mysteries they contain. Here was a brunette Amazon in a sea of soft and curvy blonds -- an anti-Marilyn, dominant and demanding where Monroe was compliant -- who deflected the ravenous gaze of strokebook buyers with a look of defiant self-possession.
At the same time, the kinkier the scenario -- be it girl-girl slap-and-tickle or a little night music for gag and rope harness -- the more she looked like a giggly teen at a pajama party. By the '80s, when Page re-emerged as a pulp icon, her combination of severe bangs, growled come-hithers and strapping poses served as camp, nostalgia, an emblem of postfeminist subversion and a fantasy figure for tops as well as bottoms. In her photos and one-reelers, she has the ingredient perhaps most crucial for obsession: an image capable of reflecting anything a viewer projects onto it.
That surface is where The Notorious Bettie Pagedwells. Neither a mock-heroic cockeyed success story like Ed Wood nor a Walk the Line-style hagiography, Mary Harron's facile but hugely entertaining black-and-white biopic seems most interested in its subject -- a studious Southern girl who became the world's most celebrated fetish pinup -- as an object. A zippy, startlingly sweet elegy for the relative innocence of postwar smut, it's also a tricky consideration of a viewer's transformative gaze -- whether that viewer is a lonely bondage hound, a photographer looking to make a fast buck, or even a director aiming a camera at her unclothed star.
After an amusing waterfront-noir opening, a police sting staged as equal parts Reefer Madness and Sweet Smell of Success, the screenplay by Harron and her American Psycho collaborator Guinevere Turner begins in fairly conventional lives-of-the-famous terms. Framed by Senator Estes Kefauver's porn inquests in 1955, to which Page was summoned but never testified, the movie briskly sketches her religious roots and unhappy adolescence in Nashville, a bad early marriage and a horrific encounter with some backwoods predators.
To Harron's credit, these incidents don't come across as explanations or cheap psychology; there's no aha! moment that draws a line connecting Page's lousy experiences with men -- or her religious background -- to her career. Instead, the movie's Bettie, played with sunny forthrightness by Gretchen Mol, passes from one eager shutterbug to another as a game if somewhat bemused subject, allowing the context to be set around her. The breeziest sections of the film involve her "notorious" bondage shoots with photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his mother-hen sister Paula (Lili Taylor), who provide taboo specialty material to discerning patrons. If Bettie and other impoverished girls can pay the rent by playing dress-up, paddling each other in pantomime before collapsing in a fit of laughter, who's getting hurt?
Nobody, the movie argues -- not the customers, whose deviant tastes look quaint compared to the Caligulan excesses of the Internet, nor the women, who take the sting out of the violent fantasy scenarios by participating joyfully. Harron and cinematographer Mott Hupfel break the monochromatic visual scheme for blazing color re-creations of '50s men's mag covers, as if the liberation they offered from the imposed moral standards of the time radiated like sunlight.
Ironically, in the role of a woman who survives in the public eye as a fascinating question mark, Mol makes a bigger impression than she ever has on-screen. She plays Page not as a sex bomb but as a wholesome, down-home kid who saw no reason to believe she was doing something wrong by undressing or posing with a whip. In one of the movie's best scenes, Bettie strips nude for an acting student in a park, and something about the casual, unguarded way Mol slips out of her clothes and basks in the light removes any hint of prurience from the moment. She disarms the camera.
The story doesn't have a very happy ending. Page's modeling career in New York lasted only seven years; there are stories that her later years involved religious obsession, one violent incident and a subsequent stay in a mental institution. Harron stops the movie before it enters this phase. Her Bettie acknowledges her past, admits no shame, then keeps the rest to herself. The writer-director gives the audience no reason to think they've seen the real Bettie Page, just a lot of dazzling surfaces.
That seems fair, even if it renders The Notorious Bettie Page somewhat unsatisfying. A recent L.A. Times profile described the now 82-year-old Page as finally enjoying the fruits of her career. She signed autographs and spoke willingly, but there was one thing she would not provide: her current photograph. Fifty years after the fact, the real Bettie Page has held on to the one thing collectors, biographers and even this diverting biopic have desired but never captured: the person peeking out from behind the image.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.