Every so often there is a biopic on a subject that is just a little too close to one’s previous interests, and this can actually lead to wanting to avoid these films, believing they would definitely “get it wrong” or for fear that they might shatter firmly held convictions about that person. I felt that way when Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) came out, and I was miffed that Jennifer Jason Leigh had been allowed to portray one of my favorite writers, Dorothy Parker. When I finally saw it recently, more than ten years after it was first released, I thought it was great and found Leigh’s performance wonderful. I felt the same apprehension when The Notorious Bettie Page came out a few years ago. A big fan of the pin-up queen since I was in high school, I was sure this film would be way too Hollywoodized for my taste. When I finally got around to seeing it, I found it much better than anything I could have expected.
Gretchen Mol, who I only knew from a bit role in Wood Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) turns in a restrained performance in a role that could have very easily sunken into caricature. Mol is a far too thin to play Bettie, but she gets the mannerisms and attitude perfect. One of the main complaints critics leveled at the film when it was released was that it goes to lengths to recreate the photo sessions that produced the stills and grainy films that secured Page’s reputation, but did little to reveal what was going through the model’s mind as she progressed to more and more risqué work. This is the type of complaint that comes from viewers who have grown too used to having everything explained to them. The lack of a voice-over narration here is one of the film’s strong points, as it works to evoke the era rather take on the air of a confession. Instead, the film is structured around a scene that has Page sitting outside a Senate committee hearing, waiting to be called to testify in an official probe into the effect of pornography on American youth. Her story unfolds through her reading over letters from her family and flashbacks.
Part of the enduring appeal of the real Bettie Page photos is that the model seemed completely at ease with her body and posing nude, so there was no daunting obstacle for her to overcome to get to that point, and didn’t really see herself as being victimized or exploited. Even after she stopped modeling and became a born-again Christian, she was never ashamed of what she had done. So while there were stages in her life, there were not such huge, dramatic shifts between them. That is what makes this film subtle, rather than “empty,” as some critics described it.