The Notorious Bettie Page is a simple movie. The script is light, but Gretchen Mol’s performance as Bettie isn’t. It’s another biopic, the story of the 1950’s pinup queen of the universe Bettie Page. In an era of sexual fear and repression, Bettie got out the whips and chains, titillating sex-starved male audiences and angering the powerful conservatives in charge of the United States government. For Bettie though, it was just a good time playing dress up. When asked what she thought of what she did, Bettie would cheerfully respond, “Oh I like to act!”
Gretchen Mol is amazing as Bettie. She pulls the character off visually, which is in itself quite a feat since until now the real life Gretchen isn’t someone who’s ever struck me as bearing much resemblance to the world’s most famous pinup. But there’s more to Gretchen’s work here than just visual transformation and a willingness to flaunt nudity. She’s electrified with an amazing, inner glow of energy. Her Bettie is so wonderfully alive and full of life, that it’s easy to understand why the real Bettie worked so perfectly in pictures. All that energy poured right into the camera and into her photos. She faces life with infectious optimism, one of those special people who can’t help but light up everyone and everything around her. The script may be thin, but Gretchen’s performance is full of nuance and bright, shining light. She brings so much life to the character that when in the end credits she stands on screen and simply poses, you’ll find yourself transfixed. Her Bettie Page is special, you won’t be able to take your eyes off her.
Bettie’s life isn’t easy or sheltered, nor was she stupid (she was her class Salutatorian). Yet throughout the film she doggedly holds on to her naivety. She took racy pictures because she enjoyed acting, and because she knew they made other people happy. She was naïve, but not blind. She knew most of the world condemned her for them. But to her, what really mattered was that she was doing something that made a few people feel good, and that made her feel good too. If Jesus didn’t like it she reasoned, then she hoped he’d let her know somehow. But then how could Jesus be against something that made so many people (however outside the perceived norm they might be) happy?
For all of Bettie’s concern about Jesus, in the end it wasn’t God that was against her, but the United States government. While for most of its running time The Notorious Bettie Page only references the heavier cultural implications of what Bettie did as an aside, eventually the reality of the political and religious forces swirling around her pictures fully intrudes. The government isn’t able to keep her from taking pictures, but she’s suddenly convinced by their bogus experts that what she’s done has been damaging to others. The idea that she might have somehow hurt people with her photos wounds Bettie, sending her running back to the welcoming arms of purity and old time religion. Yet even there, irrepressible Bettie remains completely unashamed of her past.
The thrust of this movie is the simple, tingly joy of Bettie discovering her gift for taking racy photos. Writer/director Mary Harron captures all the delight and energy of Bettie’s posing in beautiful black and white, shifting occasionally to color for key moments; like Bettie’s classic, nude Christmas pic. The huge themes of the decade are only a distant background to Bettie’s personality, a personality so enrapturing that it permeates every frame of the film. Everything about Bettie’s pictures is impossibly natural. It’s like watching her step casually right into her destiny. It’s what she was born to do and the joy of Harron’s film is in watching Bettie embrace it, while holding tight to her enthusiasm as she rebounds again and again from the harsh realities of her troubled life.
As a celebration of who and what Bettie Page was, Notorious is a success. She was America’s first sex-icon, but she never lived the glitzy glamour life of a Hollywood starlet like Marilyn Monroe. Bettie’s life was as simple as Harron’s script. She did what she loved and was surrounded by good people who cared about her while she did it. The real Bettie probably hates the title of this movie. She never saw herself as notorious or even as an icon. It wasn’t about sex or challenging an establishment; Bettie Page simply liked modeling and was comfortable enough with herself that she wasn’t bothered by nudity. As presented in The Notorious Bettie Page, she’s a beautiful, purely innocent soul and her love for life is what has made her sometimes dark pinup pictures endure.