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Ode to bondage and joy 

With The Notorious Bettie Page, director Mary Harron shows the 1950s pin-up queen will not be beaten down by life.

Bettie Page is being photographed.

The photographer—a police officer by day—speaks to her kindly, and she has not seen much kindness lately. He’s clicking his shutter quickly, directing Bettie’s facial expressions.

“Give me ‘scared,’” he says.

Bettie opens her mouth wide, mock-screaming in terror.

“Give me ‘pert,’” he says.

Bettie thinks about it for a second, then sends her eyebrows skyward as her lips form a suggestive pucker.

The photographer gets an idea. He leads Bettie to a mirror, sits her down in front of it.

“Have you ever thought about changing your hair?” he asks.

She stares at her open face, surrounded by lustrous chestnut locks, parted in the middle. “My hair?” she replies, uncertainty dripping into her sunny Southern drawl.

He stands behind her, pulling a few long strands across her forehead in demonstration. Bangs, he thinks, would not only help to frame her face better, but they would also cover her light-catching forehead.

Bettie, as is her wont, agrees.

And with one haircut, an icon is born.

“It really happened,” says Mary Harron, who depicts the scene in her new film The Notorious Bettie Page, which she directed and co-wrote with Guinevere Turner (The L Word). Many scenes in the film are dramatized for storytelling purposes, but the one that seems the most unlikely—a police officer who also happens to be a photographer suggesting a small change in appearance, resulting in the creation of the most famous pin-up of the ’50s—is for real.

“It was a man named Jerry Tibbs,” says the Toronto-born Harron from her Brooklyn living room, speaking with the speed and precision of someone who’s been spending her days talking about one thing. “He was an off-duty policeman, amateur photographer, he was African-American. It’s interesting for a girl from the South, because he approached her on the beach and you would think that she might have been prejudiced. This is very Bettie, though; he asked her to come and pose for him and she said ‘Sure.’”

Harron—who burst onto the indie film scene in 1996 with the blistering I Shot Andy Warhol, the only project that has ever fully utilized the talents of Lili Taylor—has been working on The Notorious Bettie Page for eight years. Its timing only seems prescient. Coming on the heels of Kinsey, Ray and Walk the Line, Harron was able to observe, and be wary of, biopic trappings. Like Dan Futterman’s tight script for Capote and its focus on Truman Capote’s struggles writing In Cold Blood, Harron and Turner decided to illuminate a specific time in Bettie’s life, rather than try to jam the woman’s whole existence into two-plus hours. It’s a move that’s sent critics carping for more insight: “a lightweight retelling of Page’s life, a sketch, really, which doesn’t probe very deeply into Page’s bizarre mixture of exhibitionism and piety,” writes David Denby in The New Yorker; “Harron and co-scenarist Guinevere Turner offer no clues as to what might be going on inside the dark-haired beauty’s head and heart. As Bettie Page was a sexual fetish for ’50s men, so does she seem little more than a cultural fetish for these modern filmmakers,” says Todd McCarthy in Variety. (Note: No siblings are horrifically killed in The Notorious Bettie Page.)

“I don’t know that I necessarily found the right alternative,” says Harron, “but I definitely wanted to avoid the tradition of the biopic where you find a traumatic event in the protagonist’s childhood and then make everything follow from that. I think I could have done that. She was molested by her father, she has referred to that, and I thought it was important to have it in there, to refer to it, to make it clear that, you know, this difficult childhood. But I didn’t want to make it seem like everything automatically flowed from that, and that explained her whole story.”

Despite a writer’s dream pile of trauma—Page is also gang-raped (off-screen), and her husband beats her—Harron stuck to her vision of Page’s ascent from just another pretty face to, in photos at least, the famous bondage queen.

“People always complain that you haven’t done this or that and why did you leave that part out and in this case we said ‘It’s about the ’50s,’” she says, clearly aware that she’ll be defending her choices for the foreseeable future. “We’ll show a little bit of her early life because you have to say where she came from, who she is. But I didn’t want to get into her life—we end with her, you know, finding God, and I didn’t want to get into the whole next 45 years of her life.”

She and Turner tossed out earlier versions that depicted Page’s adolescence in Nashville, and her mid-life mental breakdown, focusing on her rise to stardom in 1950s New York and Miami.

“Bettie Page is 83,” Harron says matter-of-factly. “She’s lived a lot of life.”

Bettie Page is played by Gretchen Mol. You may remember her boobs from the cover of Vanity Fair eight years ago, when nobody knew who she was (hat check girl turned actor) or what she’d been in (an episode of Spin City, Donnie Brasco, Rounders). The high-profile interview—and another appearance on VF the same year, on the cover of the Hollywood issue—effectively stalled her career, viewed by the magazine-reading and movie-going audience as a case of too-much too-soon. It sent her into the girlfriend abyss. Despite touching, nuanced performances in both the stage and film versions of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, Mol is still not an actor you’d expect to find carrying an independent film about an American icon.

“There was resistance to casting her because she hadn’t had a big role like this and because she’d had publicity and never been given a role to really justify it,” says Harron. “And so she was sort of tarnished with that. “

Though Mol is thinner than Page—50 years is an eternity in the world of beauty standards—and a WASPy blonde instead of a part-Native brunette, Harron was blown away by her audition. She carried herself with the primness of a conservative ’50s girl, and she hasn’t had any of the plastic surgery that would automatically rip a viewer out of the time period.

“Eventually when I had to counter this resistance, I had to say ‘There is no second choice. If Gretchen gets run over by a bus, I have no other person I will cast,’” says Harron. “Because it’s such a tricky role. To me, when you’re casting a part like this, when one person is onscreen for almost every scene—you don’t have the right person, you do not have the movie.”

Mol portrays Bettie as a woman who will not be beaten down by life. She doesn’t dwell on her past. She loves having her picture taken, she’s comfortable with her body and as far as she knows, she’s not hurting anybody. (And it pays the bills.) She wants to be a proper actress but isn’t good at it—she can only pose, only offer her physical self. It’s mesmerizing, sometimes infuriating—Bettie never seems to learn from her bad experiences, though you could blame that on her blind faith in Jesus—but overall it’s a joyous performance.

“It’s difficult to get that combination of innocence and sexuality, and someone who’s very natural,” says Harron. “There’s a quality, almost like a kid playing dress-up—an innocent quality—and yet it’s very fun and spontaneous. But it’s complex because it’s something sadder or darker in her, the emotion she creates.”

Mol’s performance is the best reason to see The Notorious Bettie Page, but the second best is the production design. Harron made an effort to use period equipment whenever possible, from a hand-cranked camera (used to reimagine the ridiculous fetish films Bettie appeared in) to still cameras produced during the era.

“I actually wanted to shoot the whole thing with period cameras and then everyone was a little nervous that they might break or they wouldn’t function,” she says. “So we used black and white film stock, which has hardly changed at all since the ’50s. So if you shoot on it and light it with a lot of light, as they did back then, you will get that high-contrast, old-fashioned look. But we did the titles and the dissolves and the whites, those effects, we did those optically, in the old-fashioned way, as opposed to digitally.”

Most of the movie is shot in black and white, Leave it to Beaver-style, save for Bettie’s periodic trips to Florida for shoots with famed photographer Bunny Yeager.

“It was an intuitive decision—I just had this vision of the movie bursting into colour whenever we got to Miami, like a flower, you know?” says Harron. “Which I think emotionally fit because Bettie loved Florida, to her it was this paradise, the place that she escaped to whenever things went wrong for her. But I think there’s a more mundane reason, which is that I got to know Bettie first through the black-and-white photographs of Paula Klaw, and I got to know her Miami part of the story through the colour photographs of Bunny Yeager. So I think I just always thought of it in two modes.”

Bettie Page quit posing decades ago. She lives a low-key religious life in California, counting Hugh Hefner among her closest friends. She did not cooperate with the filmmakers, and, Harron has heard, objects to the word “notorious” in the title. But her influence, like the woman—and her haircut—has survived.

“She’s an icon, not because we know about her life,” says Harron. “With Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, their real life plays somewhat heavily into their iconography, you know—James Dean’s early death, Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life. With Bettie Page, we really didn’t know that much about her. So what it is, is not so much personal about who she was as a real person, is a joy, this incredible joy and a sense of power and fun that she radiates in her pictures. Whether or not she’s dressing up in a cutesy ’50s outfit or she’s in black leather and a whip in a bondage photo, the sunniness and joy is the same, and I think that’s the power of the pictures.”

The Notorious Bettie Page opens Friday at The Oxford.

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