The Notorious Bettie Page is an unfortunately shallow interpretation of the “notorious” pin-up queen. Though, to be fair, it was not unexpected…the bio-pic is perhaps the most maligned and badly used “style” for filmmaking. Often making very few statements, opting for easy solutions and even easier filmmaking. There is little depth or true attempts to understand either Bettie, or the world that surrounds her, and in this modern age where pornography is quite literally at our fingertips it could have potentially been a truly thoughtful examination of what makes us tick. Even watching the film, I wondered if perhaps the point was to show how completely un-notorious Page was, but even if that was done well, what is the point?
What is fascinating (and again, never really explored) was Page’s religious inclination. She believed in Jesus, and was a “square” as many described her. And yet, the nature of her profession seemed contrary to that. She is asked by a photographer in one scene what she thinks God sees in her actions, and Gretchen Mol brings something tender and human to the scene, that the script didn’t really try to bring (again, unfortunately). There is no real hypocrisy in Page’s performance or life, though you would think that there would be. She is thoughtful of her actions, and reflective of the consequences, at least for her soul. Her inhibitions are admirable, she is completely free and unashamed. She isn’t into bondage or kinky sex, but she doesn’t see the harm in it. It’s progressive and accepting, more than can be said about the people who condemn her.
What saves this film is Gretchen Mol. She is an unfortunately underused actress, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Page. She brings that spunky vulnerability and innocence that was so needed for Harron’s vision (however shallow it may have been). She brings weight and an extremely apt knowledge and confidence in her sexuality that brought the character to life. Her open body expression made for a stunning screen presence, and a believable pin-up model. Her posing mannerisms were incredibly on the mark of what the real Page would do, especially the signature open mouthed smile. It’s truly unfortunate that such a dazzling performance is lost in an otherwise lacklustre film, perhaps even more so that her career never really took off. She even makes the expected “you can’t be a model forever” angle endearing and painful, in spite of Page’s seemingly immortal good looks. It’s so disappointing though, once again, that the film introduces all these ideas that we’ve heard time and time again, and doesn’t bring anything new or profound to the table.
Overall, I’d very mildly recommend this film if you’re interested in one great performance and in pin-up modelling. For the latter, you’ll hardly be introduced to anything revolutionary, but perhaps the only scenes that really succeed are as we watch Mol perform in front of two cameras, that of the photographer in the scene, and for that of the film director’s. They’re mostly wordless, and without any real attempt to be smart or depth, but they reveal more about Page than any other scenes in the film. It’s there that she is truly alive, and completely free of fear, insecurity and unhappiness.