The Marilyn Monroe of nudie-cutie shutter-buggery, Bettie Page never seemed more at ease than when she was in front of a camera, sharing her va-va-voom body with her grateful public Ã?' men in fedoras and trench coats who, stopping at the newsstand on the way home from work, would ask to see what was available under the counter. The photographs are now a respectable part of '50s iconography, the scantily (if that) clad Page assuming various poses and expressions that brought a wholesome tingle to such well-thumbed magazines as Titter, Wink and Whisper. Here was a pinup queen you could bring home to your mother, not that you'd ever try. And Page came by it naturally. Raised in the church, she never lost her pious wonder, even when bound and gagged or crawling across a romper room on all fours. Then, when she reached a certain age and the government started sniffing around, she disappeared. Poof.
How could such a story fail to titillate? Well, ask Mary Harron, director and co-scriptwriter (with Guinevere Turner) of The Notorious Bettie Page, a bio-pic that scans the surfaces of Page's life rather than probes it. The word "notorious" should be in quotes. The filmmakers find Page to have been just as sweet and innocent Ã?' or, as she was often described at the time, "naughty but nice" Ã?' as that playful panther in the photographs. And Gretchen Mol, in a performance just this side of Johnny Depp's Ed Wood, adds her own two cents. Mol doesn't have the body Page had. (Who does?) But she knows how to play a girl from Tennessee who, taken advantage of by the various men in her life, figured out a way to turn the tables, via stiletto heels and fishnet stockings. That Page would later become a religious fanatic, suffer a series of mental breakdowns, even stand trial for murder Ã?' none of this is hinted at in Mol's portrayal or Harron's portrait. Too notorious, perhaps?
Instead, the movie points to the congressional hearings that tried to shine a light on the dark, dank underbelly of the Eisenhower era. But why must Page be as pure as the driven snow to make the government's actions seem repressive? The Notorious Bettie Page has an edgy, postmod vibe. Shot mostly in black-and-white, with a Brechtian distancing effect in the acting and staging, it's closer in tone to Reefer Madness than to Kinsey. But as an examination of what drove Page to remove her clothes, it doesn't go far enough, draping a fig leaf over the most private parts of her fragile psyche.