Sailor St. Claire wonders why, even after twice watching the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, she feels just as detached from Bettie Page as ever.
The Notorious Bettie Page isn’t exactly a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good movie, either. In this way, it’s a very fitting dedication to its subject. Bettie herself may have made a living as a “bad girl” on film, but wasn’t exactly a bad girl at all. Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s biopic on the raven-haired pin-up queen focuses on Bettie Page as a blank canvas for the projection of other people’s fantasy. Even though a biopic is supposed to tell us something about the subject, Harron and Turner’s film leaves Bettie as an enigma. A religious girl from Tennessee who never wanted to be a teacher, with a natural talent for posing in front of cameras, and no shame about the body she was born into—these are the only three things we learn about Bettie as a person by the end of the film.
I know a lot of people, both in the pin-up/rockabilly/burlesque communities and around the world, wonder why Bettie Page would give up being Bettie Page, and the film does seem to pose an answer to this question. Bettie’s story is framed with the raids on Irving Klaw’s photography studio, and the 1955 hearings which accused Klaw and his wife of distributing pornographic material, especially through the mail in violation of the Comstock Law. Bettie herself waits outside the courthouse, waiting to be called to give testimony, for 12 whole hours, before the court determines she is unnecessary to the process. The film posits that there’s something about her role as a model here—the idea that her voice, her thoughts about any of the things she did on film for the Klaws or other photographers is “unnecessary”—that seems to shift Bettie’s thinking about her work. After the trial in which she is denied participation, she moves to Florida, reunites with Jesus, and becomes a preacher. The final scene shows Bettie telling a stranger that she wasn’t at all ashamed of her allegedly pornographic modeling, but that her God didn’t want her to model anymore, and so she didn’t.
Biopics have a tendency to lionize their subjects rather than critiquing them, and so the detachment with which the filmmakers treat the “notorious” Bettie Page is in some ways very refreshing. The choice to replicate the cinematic techniques of a period melodrama both aids in creating this sense of detachment, I think, as well as actually detaching the audience. Much like the racy photo essays that made Bettie famous, the filmmakers treat her story as a series of images rather than a narrative. As such, we as viewers don’t get much to cling to, which is why even after viewing this film, I still feel detached from Bettie. She maintains her mystery and allure, even though we do become privy to facts about her life: that she was kidnapped and raped in her early days as a model, that a black man was responsible for starting her career (and that she didn’t see a problem with a black man taking photos of a white woman in the 1940s), and that taking kinky photographs for men’s enjoyment was nothing but harmless dress-up fun to Bettie. These vignettes of her early life are presented to viewers via the camera zooming in on a letter to a friend back home, which Bettie grasps in her gloved hands while she waits outside the courthouse at the Klaw’s trial. I thought this was a nice nod to period cinema, and I liked how camera moves like that were paired with a generous use of B-roll shots of the American countryside as Bettie traveled on busses from Tennessee to New York.
The majority of the film is in glorious black and white, save for a few scenes in color—most of which take place in Florida around everyone’s favorite dream femme Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I watched this film with my friend Maggie McMuffin, and we both had a difficult time tracking what the shift to color was meant to represent. Had all of the scenes in shitty old-timey color been in Florida with Bunny, we would have been content reading them as scenes in which Bettie was being seen as a person (i.e. by a woman) than in the black and white way men saw her. But there’s also a scene in color where Bettie, the Klaws, other models, and some of their preferred clients are all playing croquet somewhere in upstate New York (and then taking “edgy” bondage-in-the-woods shots after the game), and, of course, the final scenes illustrating Bettie’s “conversion” back to her Christian life and new career as a preacher are also in color. So I’m not sure how to read the presence of color. Perhaps they’re meant to illustrate scenes in which Bettie’s making choices for herself, but if that’s true, it invalidates not only how she understands her career as a model, but her actual choice in becoming a fetish model (which as a pretty white woman, she had a lot of choice in).
One thing I think the film makes clear is that the women who worked for the Klaws were not exploited, or asked to perform any tasks that they wouldn’t be fairly compensated for—or for clients not approved by the Klaws themselves. But at the same time, there are many scenes elsewhere that illustrate that amateur modeling is no different now than it was in the 1950s—from the proliferation of edgy bondage photos in the woods, to photographers asking models to do more than they agreed to pay for, it’s as if Bettie Page was on Model Mayhem before Model Mayhem even existed.
The Notorious Bettie Page is a strange pastiche of images from the life of a woman who is better known in pictures than in words, and so perhaps its best to leave her that way, innocent and naughty all at once, decorating Christmas trees in the nude in Playboy.
– Gretchen Moll sure is good at being a bad actress.
– Maggie: “That guy looks like a knock-off Norman Reedus.” Me: “That is Norman Reedus.”
– Jared Harris, better known as Lane Pryce on Mad Men, plays a total scuzzball in this. He looks like Remus Lupin on a bender.
– Jefferson Mays looks terrifying in this film.
– The minute Bettie’s actor boyfriend tells her he thinks her fetish photos are disgusting, Maggie and I both yelled, “Bye, Felipe!” at the screen.
– Not enough Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I’d have loved to see a more feminist take on Bettie Page that focused on how she and Bunny Yeager collaborated and mutually built one another’s careers.
– Sheriff Andy Bellfleur is Irving Klaw. That one took us a while to recognize.
– I want to live in Bunny Yeager’s house.
– The costume designer for this film did an awesome job. We loved all the 1950s swimsuits and underwear. We loved Bunny Yeager’s sundresses and sensible sandals.
– That holiday pinup from Playboy, where Bettie is decorating her tree while wearing nothing but a Santa hat, is basically the gold standard for Christmas pinups. It is a remarkable photo, and Yeager really does capture something special about Bettie in that shot. I can’t explain why it works so well; it just does.
– Paula Klaw is a hero for not burning all of the images she and Irving shot. Thank you, Paula, for saving the smut you worked so hard to make.