Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2005)

During Bettie Page's career peak, she has been described as the pin-up queen of the universe. Yet despite the rather crass title she has obtained by posing in several nudist and fetish magazines, the real Bettie Page has remained a virtuous girl; maintaining the upright religiosity of her Southern roots. It's not surprising that a biopic about her would be made. Martin Scorsese originally wanted to make something out of Page's life with Liv Tyler as the famous pin-up model, but that was shelved due to the production of Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004). Mary Harron subsequently finishes this biopic which I thought was a dull and uninteresting effort, considering that the life of Page is undeniably colorful.

Partly to blame is Harron's aesthetic decision to film majority of the film in black and white with some sequences (mostly those shot in Miami) in color. The flip-flopping from black and white to color is mostly a jarring experience especially when the black and white photography is so beautiful. The initial sequences were shot like a Classic Hollywood pic most probably to emphasize Page's place in pop culture history. Page's career end ushered in the proliferation of smut --- pornography a million times more lewd than Page's reenacted bondage photographs. There's a sense of classiness to the black and white photography, but almost immediately jumbled when Harron decides to film some portions of the film in color. She probably has a reason behind the infrequent switches, but the reason gets lost in style.

Then there's the blunt moral center of the film. Although Bettie Page is assumed to be a devout Christian, Harron seems to be banking on such too much. The film never gets past that angle and is consumed by its own moralistic preaching. It seems that Harron is more interested in the fact that Bettie Page is an uncharacteristic icon because of her differences in profession and belief, rather than the fact that the model is human. The dilemma brewing inside Bettie Page can only be seen in various glimpses --- these glimpses are supplied by Harron whenever she's not busy moralizing and preaching and diving for icons and symbolisms within the story of the model's life.

The Notorious Bettie Page is not entirely a dull experience. Gretchen Mol brings a watchable vitality to Harron's horridly underwritten Bettie Page. Mol's charismatic performance infuses the character the bare humanity it needs to carry on the narrative. As mentioned above, the cinematography is top-notch. The glossy black and white photography supplies the pic with a distinct setting that sufficiently supplants this present era wherein Bettie Page's poses are considered tame. It's actually a nice idea for Harron to use the real footage of one of Bettie Page's films (the film shows a scantily clad Page dancing and wiggling her bottom) as visual aide for the end credits. It's funny how that same film was part of the reason for the model's notoriety and her repeated mentions in the United States senate proceedings against pornography, but is now a part of this film --- a film that fosters a moralistic tone and appropriately ends with Bettie Page preaching verses from the Bible.

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