Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

Even if The Notorious Bettie Page doesn't completely illuminate the psyche of its subject, it makes crystal clear the scret of her success. For whatever reason — maybe she enjoyed it, maybe she was too naive to fully understand what she was doing, maybe she was a great actress if only in this one area — Bettie Page was the Pin-Up Girl of the Universe because she could take just about any picture a horny mind could imagine and make it look fun, classy, even beautiful. It's not difficult to imagine a lot of people in the sex industry are there out of desperation. Bettie never looks desperate: she looks downright gleeful.

Even if The Notorious Bettie Page isn't an outstanding movie, its notorious Bettie Page most certainly is. With that famous Bettie wig and some fine period costumes, Gretchen Mol completely disappears into the role. You often read some critic writing of an actor in a biopic than "You forget you're even watching [AWARD-CRAVING MOVIE STAR] in the role," and, nine times out of ten that is utter bullshit. Movie stars are movie stars because they are larger than their roles and we go to see movie stars in movies to see the act accordingly. That's why Mol is so good: she's been in plenty of movies, but she's certainly not a movie star and so he slips annonymously into the role. Her physical resemblence to Page helps tremendously as well, and in capturing Page's giddy fearlessness, she exhibits those traits herself.

Director and co-writer Mary Harron never fully reconciles Page's two sides, the naughty model and the God-fearing Christian, possibly because Harron can't quite rationalize the two in the same person, and really, nobody could. And the black and white cinematography by Mott Hupfel is flat and drab (vastly inferior to the cinematography in the other major monochromatic Hollywood film of 2006, The Good German) but that works to the film's advantage in one significant way: it makes the brief color sequences, particularly Bettie's trips to the beaches of Miami, seem even more luminous by comparision.

By and large, the film is perfectly cast and produced: you won't find a better melding of period stock footage and a contemporary cast, or attention to detail in costuming and production design. Nevertheless, and even with the inspiring contributions of Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page just hums along from beat to beat like a lot of biopics; there's not much passion to anything, including Page's stripteases. She was so unaffected by the bondage, so unfazed by the nudity, that, upon reflection, there's really nothing at stake. Her conservative family doesn't object, at least not vocally; for the most part, the various men in her life don't concern themselves with her modeling; and until the end of the film, Bettie manages to keep her devotion to God out of her devotion to nudie cuties. So The Notorious Bettie Page stands as a testament to her power and her accomplishments instead of explaining or exploring them in any significant detail. It's like a statue with only the most cursory of plaques to explain its importance.


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