Monday, May 14, 2007

Bettie Page and Gretchen Mol--two women worth spending time with

I generally resist the enormous temptation to write about film in this blog, but I saw a film last night that I must mention because of its subject matter. The Notorious Bettie Page is a film I wanted to see when it came out last year, but I did not have the opportunity. It was on television last night, and I was enthralled by it.

Many of us grew up hearing about the scandalous Page, though we did not know all the details about the scandal until we were older. Page may have been the most myterious icon of my childhood, in fact. I knew she was very famous, and I knew she posed for "pin-ups," but I didn't know much else.

Page was, of course, in hundreds of photos and films which were considered pornographic in their day because most of them featured bondage and discipline or at least, through costume, implied it. As far as I know, none of them featured men, but instead, fed on the girl-on-girl fantasy that is universally popular among heterosexual men. Page was tied, trussed, chained--you name it--while women spanked and whipped her.

The film is directed and co-written by Mary Harron, who also directed I Shot Andy Warhol, a film I like a great deal, which tells the story of Valerie Solanas, who is played brilliantly by Lili Taylor. Taylor also appears in The Notorious Bettie Page, as Paula Klaw, half of the husband-wife team who did most of Page's photos and films. Sarah Paulson (who was just wonderful on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) plays Bunny Yeager, the famous model-turned-photographer whose "jungle" shots of Paige catapulted her to even greater fame.

It is Gretchen Mol, however, as Page, who makes this film. Mol, you may recall, made a splash when she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and then proceeded to disappear almost into oblivion. The Notorious Bettie Page was her comeback film, and what a comeback it is. Mol perfectly captures Page's comfort with her own body, her good nature, and her relative innocence. She mugs and poses and grins and winks, and we are won over by her. Bettie Page was a victim of child abuse and also experienced a gang rape. An exceptional student, she also just barely missed being class valedictorian and getting a university scholarship. It was no surprise that she could appear so at home in various states of bondage.

But there is nothing about Page, as Mol plays her, that suggests she felt like a victim. She had a survivor's instinct to go wherever she would be treated well, and she was treated well indeed by both Paula and Irving Klaw, who actually stood in as parent figures for her. Page was also treated with gentleness and respect by Bunny Yeager, who, more than anyone, understood what it was like to pose for "girlie" pictures.

The Klaws' photos and films of Page led to a Senate hearing conducted by Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), in which America's hypocrisy about sex was put on show. The entire affair led Page back to her religious upbringing, she retired from her career, and became very active in her church.

The Notorious Bettie Page fills in the blanks about Page's life, exposes (yet again) the nation's obsession with sex and religion, and also lets us spend some time in a very gray area of the erotica/pornography world. Page was not exploited by her managers, nor did images of her depict the humiliation of a woman by men. The Page images also did not fall neatly into the "erotica" category (I always use Steinem's definitions). They were what they were, and while me may not like some of the fantasies that surely accompanied the viewing of these images, the images themselves hardly appear sadistic to us today.

Finally, the film gives Mol a chance to show how very talented she is. I hope she doesn't disappear again.

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