281 – The Notorious Bettie Page

Bettie Page, for those of you not in the know, was a famous pinup girl in the forties and fifties. Yes, before the Internet, you young whippersnapper, before even cable TV. Back then, if you wanted to get a peek of some naked breasts, you had to hie thyself to your corner newsstand and furtively buy yourself a copy of what was euphemistically called “mens” magazines. Hey, this was before even Playboy; looking at photographs of nekked chicks was seen as truly deviant behavior, and even then the pictures that appeared in those magazines were, by today’s standards, quite tame.

Page was a naive farmgirl from Kingsport, Tennessee who decided to give acting a try up in New York – and quickly found out that it was those dirty pictures that paid the rent. At first she took the photo gigs as a means to get by while she worked on her acting career, but eventually no one took her seriously as an actress; she was always the “notorious Bettie Page.” After her softcore career stalled – thanks in no small part to some witchhunting by Congress – Page converted to Christianity, perhaps subconsciously trying to atone for her “sins.” She’s still alive, too, although she’s stayed well out of the limelight for a long, long time.

Anyway, Gretchen Mol plays her in this movie. Now, most of you might not be familiar with Mol’s work, but she typically plays the girlfriend or young wife or any number of small female roles. She played Matt Damon’s girl in Rounders, for example, and I found her to be pretty annoying in it, but she also played the love interest in The Thirteenth Floor opposite Craig Bierko, where she was somewhat more palatable. Could be she’s on her way up, ready to be discovered via a huge breakout role, and the role of Bettie Page just might be the one. For one thing, Mol really acts in this movie; she’s not there just for show, and she can’t get by on her cutesy looks alone. In fact, she really disappears into the role; Mol herself is blonde as blonde can be, while Page was famed for her brunette tresses. Squint a little, and you might be able to tell it’s Gretchen Mol, but probably not, and that’s a sure sign that her acting has swayed you.

The movie moves along pretty steadily, flagging only during the courtroom scenes – which are sparse – and maybe a little near the end, but it’s all compact and likeable. One complaint might be that we don’t get to see far beneath the surface of Page’s character; what leads her to the decisions she makes? Some of her earliest history is necessarily rushed (the director wants to get to the good stuff of the bondage and nudity), so Page’s motivations aren’t always well explored. We’re left with a superficial treatment of a fascinating character.

But luckily, Mol rises above her material, bringing so much of Page’s enthusiasm and mystery that you quickly forget about the nuance issue. Plus she looks pretty darn good naked.

**1/2

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