It has often been said that Bettie Page, the legendary ’50s pinup with the pert features framed by those famously severe black bangs, was the rare American sex goddess who was equally at home projecting the image of a good girl or a bad girl. Frolicking, naked, in the ocean foam, her leg extended with playful pleasure, she was all dazzle and sunshine: the girl next door who said yes yes yes. In her scandalous underground bondage photos, where she posed as a dominatrix with a whip held high, or as a masochist with a ball in her mouth, she vamped like a pussycat from hell, her eyes narrowing with mean delight — or widening in mock terror. Yet the mysterious alchemy of Bettie Page isn’t just that she could turn on a dime from light to dark, saint to sinner, virgin to vixen. It’s that she was somehow able to project both qualities at once. In the bondage photos, so shocking for their time, her warm, spirited, peekaboo vibrance doesn’t disappear; it’s there just beneath the surface aggression of her poses. As for her all-American cheesecake shots, they have a quality of delirious, laughing abandon, as though she were winking at the she-devil inside. What Bettie Page conjured — always — was the promise of pleasure without limits. She was a one-woman orgy in centerfold form.
Yet who, exactly, was she? The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron’s frisky and fascinating biopic, lets us know — sort of. Gretchen Mol, as Bettie, gets that naughty/nice erotic charisma to an astonishing degree. Soft, eager, and polite, with a twang that only enhances her apple-pie sweetness, Bettie, a demure Christian girl from the outskirts of Nashville, arrives in New York City in 1949 with dreams of becoming an actress. The movie presents her as a traditional girl, caught in a society that runs on men’s whims, with a free spirit locked deep inside her. She wouldn’t look out of place in a typing pool, yet the one thing she truly knows, for all her modesty, is that she’s pretty, so when a man on the beach asks her to model for some photographs, she thinks, Why not?
Posing for amateur ”camera clubs,” Bettie gets in touch with her inner exhibitionist. As she strolls through the woods with one of the club members, she volunteers to take off her bikini top, then her bottom, too, and suddenly, her skin shines, her smile is flirty glee, and she wiggles her rump in triumph. Standing, in her full tawny glory, in the sun, like Norma Jean before she became Marilyn Monroe, Mol is more than radiant; she makes Bettie’s blissful lack of self-consciousness a magical state. Bettie, in a strange way, is never more Christian than when she asserts the holiness of her own body. Later, in the studio of Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer), who does fetish photographs for specialty clients, she puts on all that bondage gear — corsets, leather boots laced up her thigh — as if it were a sci-fi costume, and when the photographer, a gently scurrilous bloke (Jared Harris), asks her to snarl like a tiger, she does, and beautifully, but she’s really just a little girl playing dress-up.
Harron has a great time staging these scenes as a demented workplace sitcom, with Klaw, a sad lump of a fellow who’s always in a sweat, and his sister, Paula (Lili Taylor), catering to the tastes of their clients as if they were selling appliances. If Bettie, in joining up with the Klaws, were simply a dim bulb, her innocence might have come off as a malicious joke. Instead, the great joke of The Notorious Bettie Page is that it’s precisely Bettie’s purity — her eager, trusting wholesomeness — that allows her to radiate sexuality without a trace of inhibition or shame. Framed by the Estes Kefauver indecency hearings, the movie says that in an era — the 1950s — that regarded sex as perversity and scandal and even crime, something restricted to the underground, it took a nice girl who couldn’t see perversity (because she didn’t feel it) to turn ”sin” into the sexy-sublime.
Shot in satiny period black and white, with shifts to tropical postcard color whenever Bettie visits the ”paradise” of Florida, The Notorious Bettie Page is a comedy of high freakishness that invites us to climb deep into the mystique of Bettie Page’s image, her phenomenon. Yet the movie doesn’t probe her interior life in any revelatory way. I wish that Harron had given us a more detailed and intimate view of Bettie’s relationships with men (the boyfriend she meets in acting class remains a sketchy nice guy), or of her partnership with Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), the pinup model-turned-photographer who created some of Page’s most memorable images. The movie, in a sense, is just like Bettie’s photos: all glorious surface. The Notorious Bettie Page captures, with seductive finesse, how Bettie Page happened, yet what it leaves us with is the tantalizing enigma of a girl who couldn’t truly be ”bad” because she made sex divinely delicious.