The Notorious Bettie Page

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Bettie Page is an ambitious, naïve, and devout young Christian woman who longs to leave Nashville, Tennessee following a childhood of sexual abuse, a failed wartime marriage, and a gang rape. In 1949 she departs for New York City, where she enrolls in an acting class. Amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs discovers her walking on the beach at Coney Island and she agrees to model for him. He suggests she restyle her hair with the bangs that would become her trademark.

Bettie becomes a favorite of nature photographers (including Bunny Yeager, who films her posing with two leopards), and she has no hesitation about removing her clothes for the photographers when asked. Before long images of the shapely brunette reach brother-and-sister entrepreneurs Paula and Irving Klaw, who run a respectable business selling movie stills and memorabilia but also deal with fetish photos, magazines, and 8- and 16-millimeter films for additional income. Their top model Maxie takes Bettie under her wing, and she soon finds herself wearing leather corsets and thigh-high boots while wielding whips and chains for photographer John Willie, frequently at the request of Little John, a mild-mannered attorney with unusual tastes. Bettie is innocently unaware of the sexual nature of the images that rapidly are making her a star in the underground world of bondage aficionados.

Bettie is called to testify before a 1955 hearing, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, investigating the effects of pornography on American youth. Though she waits patiently for 12 hours to answer the committee’s questions, Kefauver (for reasons unknown) decides to not bring her before the committee and dismisses her without an explanation.

When it becomes apparent that casting directors are more interested in her notoriety than in any acting talent she might possess, Bettie heads to Miami Beach. Drifting along with limited career prospects and a virtually nonexistent social life, she stumbles upon a small church, walks inside and embraces Jesus Christ during a religious service. Although she insists she’s not ashamed of anything she has done in her life, she appears happy to leave her past behind and return to her spiritual roots by preaching the word of the Lord on street corners.

Back in New York, Irving is stressed out and suffering from ill-health. He decides that he and his sister must burn their vast collection of erotic photos, and movie footage in order to avoid potential prosecution. Paula reluctantly complies with her brother’s request, but secretly saves the negatives of many of Bettie’s pictures and movies from the bonfire, therefore ensuring that Bettie’s work will survive for future generations.

REVIEW:

I’m like any other red-blooded (straight) male. I love looking at women. However, whereas some guys think the sexiest the female form can look is in various states of nude, I personally prefer the whole pin-up thing from the ’50s. One of the most popular pin-ups of this time was Bettie Page (who passed a few years back).

She wasn’t your conventional pin-up, though. Her shots were more of the fetish variety. I don’t have an fetishes, that I know of, but a certain redhead chica friend I’m sure has quite a few.

The Notorious Bettie Page is an HBO biopic that tells the life of Bettie from her beginning up the time when she became a born again Christian. Is it worth checking out, though?

Here’s what works…

Gretchen Mol. The supermodel turned actress completely transformed herself into a believable facsimile of Ms. Page. There were moments when I actually thought it was her.

Cinematography. The filmmaker’s decision to film the scenes in the past in black and white and the present scenes in color was quite brilliant, and added a nice touch to the picture.

Pacing. With most biopics, there is a slowness that goes on as we relive almost their entire life. However, with this one, we get clips here and there that are the equivalent to what some may call the Cliff notes version of her life. Truth be told, the parts that are shown are, for the most part, the parts people are interested in, which is why it works.

Tasteful nudity. I remember an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Hilary was asked to pose for Playboy, and Uncle Phil and Will talked to Hugh Hefner about their concerns. He said that the nudes would be “tasteful”. To this day, I’ve always wondered what they meant by that, then I saw the few nude scenes Gretchen Mol has as Bettie. She’s fully nude, but it is done in a natural way as opposed to some random view that makes her look sluttish, for lack of a better term.

What didn’t work?

The opening. I got what they were trying to do by having it as some sort of porn raid and all, but to me, it felt a bit out of place…or at least the time line.

Rebirth. At the end, Bettie is a reborn Christian. She’s even randomly reading her bible outside in the park. This is all fine and dandy, but how did she go from her “raunchy” career to the extremist she appears to be. There seems to be something missing there that perhaps they should have taken a few minutes to tell.

Come original. Bettie Page was/is an icon. Gretchen Mol did her justice, of that there is no question, but I think it would have been nice to have some of the actual Bettie Page shots appear during the end credits. That’s more of a personal suggestions than a complaint, though.

Final verdict onThe Notorious Bettie Page?It does what it sets out to do, which is tell the life story of Bettie Page in a way that won’t besmirch her good name. However, I’m not sure they should have used the word “notorious” in the title, as it seems the only reason she got that way was because of the smily guy who was taking the pictures. All in all, though, this is a pretty good biopic that might actually have been a success had it been released in theaters as opposed to being an HBO movie. It is most definitely worth checking out!

4 out of 5 stars

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