The Notorious Betty Page is one of those movies that really has all the potential in the world for gratuitous nudity and all-around lasciviousness. It would be so easy to go that route that it’s all the more surprising that it doesn’t. We follow the iconic Betty Page (Gretchen Mol) through her adolescence and early marriage in CliffsNotes style and it’s clear that we are dealing with a young lady who is in possession of a substantial intelligence as well as beauty. She is also surprisingly naïve, despite the hints at child abuse and spousal abuse and the tastefully showed gang rape she is subjected to when she first tries to make it on her own.
Betty wants a career as a model/actress, but finds that there is a more lucrative way of making a living posing in “special clothing” and all the trappings of sado-masochism and fetish ware. At the time, having an interest in leather corsets and boots that go all the way to there was not considered fashionably chic, the way it is today. It was considered aberrant and deviant sexual behaviour to such a degree that it was illegal.
Betty is offered the job by Irving (Chris Bauer) and Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) and she poses for a good many pictures and even some shorter films that feature fetish ware and various scenes that include spanking and bondage. What strikes me as interesting about this particular movie is that all this is portrayed as dressing up in good fun, kind of light-hearted and not particularly sinister. Things only get sinister when Betty is called to testify at a 1955 hearing investigating the negative effects of pornography on the youth of America. She never actually makes it into the courtroom, but that certainly means the innocence is gone.
Betty tries to get regular acting jobs as well, but she is too well-known, hence the “notorious” part, and finds herself drifting in Miami where she ambles into a church and is saved. That part is a little peculiar, but then, real life often is. Betty puts her modelling days behind her and goes on to work as a Christian missionary, and yes, there’s a joke in there somewhere.
Some of the sensibility of the movie most likely has to do with the fact that it has a female writer/director, as well as a female producer. Most of it, except the scenes that take place in Miami, is shot in black-and-white, which really does something to capture the 1950s feel. Gretchen Mol is a very pretty Betty, and a good lookalike, too. One of the things said about Betty Page was that she somehow seemed more dressed when naked and that she always seemed very comfortable when in front of the camera, and that is certainly not an easy feat to pull off. There is something about this kind of attitude to nudity that de-sexualises it, no matter how explicit the scene, ironically.
1950s pornography is surrounded by some kind of nostalgia, clearly, and there’s more than one classic pinup girl pose here that just seems quaint. This Betty Page is very much portrayed as smart, sensitive, and playful, very much a real person, which is, again, surprising. There are many instances where things honestly could have gotten much grimmer for Betty, which is not to say that she doesn’t occasionally get herself into trouble. To my mind there is still a very carefully calculated objectivity to the overall feel of the movie which shows that this is not done for sensationalism, but it is not offering any conclusions either.
At the end of the day I am not sure if we are left with a drama, a kind of documentary, a piece of social commentary, a cautionary tale, or none of the above. And I am strangely okay with that.
The Notorious Betty Page (2005) directed by Mary Harron stars Gretchen Mol (Betty Page), Chris Bauer (Irving Klaw), Lili Taylor (Paula Klaw), Jared Harris (John Willie), Sarah Paulson (Bunny Yeager), David Strathairn (Estes Kefauver), Norman Reedus (Billy Neal), Cara Seymour (Maxie).