Was she really that naive? Or was she a brilliant strategist seizing the opportunity and sensing that the time was right? Was she really as innocent as she appeared or was she really The Notorious Bettie Page that our imaginations want her to be?
The opening scene filmed in striking black and white features a 1955 undercover agent conducting a bust of a porn shop. Throughout the entire film, we see examples of what was considered porn in the '50s that compares favorably with a present day Victoria's Secret catalog. One of the crew members comments in the special feature that you see some of this stuff in store windows in New York now and it doesn't even raise eyebrows. Then a flashback to 1936 Nashville when Bettie was only 13, an innocent teen in rural Tennessee. There are hints here of a willingness to explore life outside the confines of a strict home life where we see suggestions of molestation by her father. Unfortunately, neither of these themes are developed nor clarified. I prefer directors who give their audience credit for being able to think. We don't always need a final scene at the end to wrap things up when we can figure it out for ourselves.
In this case, it would have been appropriate for director Mary Harron to have given us more information. There's also a gang rape scene that seems to come onto the screen out of nowhere — a real non sequitur. In contrast to the hints of parental abuse, the rape scene is unsettling but thankfully not graphic. We're left to figure this one out for ourselves. Did this crime go unpunished? Did Miss Page suffer long-term effects from it? Is it why the marriage to her childhood sweetheart failed? Does the rape come into play when she approaches a total stranger on the beach and picks him up?
Considering the superficial nature of this film and the lack of character development, the quality of the acting makes it easy to say "Gretchen Mol became Bettie Page" in the same sense as complimenting Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix for their biopic performances as Charles and Cash respectively. Mol effortlessly conveyed the openness and willingness of Page to "make 'em happy." She was confidently at ease both posing for the camera club guys and romping completely nude both in and out of the studio.
With the scantily clad lead character striking provocative poses and arousing a wide variety of emotions, it seems improbable that another cast member could make a memorable impression. But it happens as Lili Taylor portrays Paula Klaw, sister of Irving Klaw, one of the first "fetish photographers" who sold his work via mail. She delivers an enthusiastic yet sincere performance bringing both a caring (for the models) and opportunistic (for sales) demeanor to the role. Another highlight is the soundtrack, vintage music of several genres from the '50s including Eddy Arnold, Artie Shaw, Patsy Cline, Clifford Brown, Fats Waller, Leroy Anderson, and Charles Mingus.
The DVD includes several special features: movie with narration by director and star, "making of" with cast and crew, "The Real Bettie Page," approximately 12 minutes home movies of Bettie Page undressing — not a strip tease.
When the setting shifts to Miami Beach from New York, our senses are struck with a sudden shift from black and white to a highly saturated color scene on a sun-drenched beach with a rich blue ocean backdrop. Kudos to the editor for cutting from nude scenes as they are shot to bikini scenes on postcards as the finished product. It was in Miami that Page met former model and now photographer Bunny Yeager. Yeager was the connection to Hugh Hefner and within a year, Bettie was "Miss January" 1955. The movie ends with the conversion of the "Pin-up Queen of the Universe" to Christianity and a shallow scene where she tells a doubter that, "God approves of nudity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they were naked as jaybirds."