Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Notorious Betty Page

The Yeager Sanction

The Notorious Bettie Page

Directed by Mary Harron
USA 2005 Picturehouse Films
Blu Ray Zone B

I remember wanting to catch this movie at cinemas when it came out but, if memory serves, a combination of being ill and it not playing at my local meant I missed my opportunity. Luckily, I managed to pick up a DVD of this in Fopp records in one of those “if you spend over £X you get the opportunity to buy this for £Y” kinds of deals a year or two ago. And now, here I am finally getting around to watching the thing.

Bettie Page, of course, was the famous and certainly iconic model who, in the 1940s and 1950s was shooting saucy poses, nudes and also lots of fetish and bondage stuff (including short movies of similar material) for famous photographers such as Irving Klaw, his sister Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager. She also appeared in a small number of feature length burlesque movies as a performer, along with the likes of Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr and Cherry Knight, in such movies as Striporama, Varietease and Teaserama. Curiously, those movies aren’t actually mentioned in this film, although the dance on the end credits could well be lifted from one of them... or it’s performed by Gretchen Mole, the actress playing The Notorious Bettie Page, copying one of them as, frankly, there are a few times in this movie when it’s very hard to tell them apart. Mole does that good a job with the role.

Now, it has to be said that the film, like most biopics, paints a slightly different version of events in some areas than real life. For instance, Jared Harris plays the creator of the famous Adventures Of Gwendoline bondage comic strip but, in real life, I believe the two never met. Now, Bettie Page was still alive and ‘rediscovered’ when this film came out (she died at the age of 85 back in 2008) and, contrary to reports at the time, she didn’t think the film necessarily portrayed things as they were precisely and didn’t quite click with it, although it’s noted she liked Gretchen Mole in the part. My understanding is the story of Bettie Page in real life, if you can filter out any tall tales, contains even more interesting and sometimes alarming material than is portrayed in this movie and so, it seems, I’ll need to try and pick up the equivalent of a decent biography at some point.

Now, I have to say that this must have been an intimidating part for Mole to play. I’m certainly not joking when I say Bettie Page is an iconic figure. I have a little bookmark with a painting of her at work which is ‘blu tacked’ to the inside of my doorframe and it’s clear that, even people who don’t know her, somehow recognise her and her famous haircut (the origin of which we see in this movie). I remember seeing the movie version of the comic book The Rocketeer back in 1991 and thinking how the character Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly, seemed a fairly obvious, especially from the dialogue, homage to Bettie Page. When you look at the original comic book, which is very different due to the film not licensing half of the characters who are in the original (I think the most important absence in the movie, for me, is Doc Savage, who invented the rocket pack in the comic book... not Howard Hughes as the movie shows) the character is called Bettie and has a modelling career where she shoots risque material and is drawn to look exactly like Bettie Page so... yeah... an influential figure who, I suspect, was never fully or adequately paid for the cultural impact of her modelling work.

The film itself starts off in New York in 1955 where a porn store is raided and we go on to see David Strathairn playing  Estes Kefauver, a prosecutor in a public prosecution case against ‘The Klaws’ in a real ‘McArthy witch hunt looking' trial against pornographic material, which put me in mind of the same kinds of footage one sees of the hearings against the comic book industry in the 1950s. The film uses this point of time, with Bettie waiting in the lobby to be called to answer questions... and from there we dart backwards in time to different places to look at her back story and how she got from a girl growing up in 1936 and 1942, before going on to her modelling career.

And the film is pretty accomplished. In the 1942 sequence, director Harron takes us... and Betty... from early courtship to marriage, domestic abuse and divorce all in the space of a few minutes which doesn’t even feel like a regular montage sequence. That being said, the director really knows how to do that kind of sequence and there’s one beautiful section of film where we are taken through various covers which feature Gretchen as Bettie, moving and doing the photoshoot live in giant mock ups of the covers (or it’s possibly CGI’d). These moments actually reminded me of the scenes where Gene Kelly is talking about Leslie Caron and we see vignettes of her dancing in different moods in On The Town and, to be honest, of similar scenes in the late 1940s/1950s MGM musicals in particular, it has to be said. So, yeah, some really nice stuff here from this director. That being said, the film is mostly shot in a very crisp black and white but various sequences such as this wonderful cover montage or the photoshoots by Bunny Yeager in Miami, suddenly burst into colour (reminiscent of the colour films of the era) and bring a lovely sense of contrast and richness to the film as a whole.

When Bettie moves out of her abusive marriage she is picked up on the street one night on the promise of an evening of dancing and driven to a remote spot to be gang raped. I never realised she had this kind of trauma in her life but the early bleakness of the story is offset by some really happy times when we get to her modelling career. This incident compels her to leave for New York in 1949 where she gets into the modelling scene almost by accident. There are also some spots of actual footage, I suspect (or just incredibly well done, visually aged stock thrown in to confuse), from a similar period such as a the bus ride to New York which looks quite authentic at times... so I’m just assuming it is actually lifted from library stock.

And it’s a brilliant film which takes a look at the central character with, perhaps, just a little too much religious overtone if my reading of the reaction of the real Bettie Page is something I’m interpreting correctly.

Gretchen Mole is perfect in this, capturing the facial expressions, mannerisms and cute, exaggerated poses of the subject absolutely pitch perfectly. Now, it has to be said that I thought her nipples were just slightly different to the real life Bettie’s and I was somewhat torn for a few minutes in terms of the authenticity of the character but... I figured you can’t get everything right and, frankly, CGI nipples would not have been a good choice, methinks. Mole is joined by a whole load of brilliant actors to help highlight her central performance. I’ve already mentioned Strathairn and Harris but we also have on hand Lili Taylor as Paula Claw, Sarah Paulson (who played an important role recently in the M. Night Shyamalan film Glass, reviewed here) in an almost but not quite scene stealing turn as Bunny Yeager and a brilliant and nicely comical performance by Chris Bauer as Irving Klaw.

So, add up all these beautiful performances, some lovely black and white cinematography, a nice soundtrack including some good needle drop song choices by the likes of Julie London and an energy and pacing which makes for never a dull moment... and you have this fine film, The Notorious Bettie Page, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any cinephiles I know of and especially those interested in a slice of American history which isn’t often touched upon that often in the movies (although the absolute masterpiece from a couple of years ago, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which I reviewed here, did a pretty good job of certain aspects of it too). This is definitely due another watch at some point and now I wish I’d have grabbed a Blu Ray copy of it instead of this DVD version. A truly gorgeous piece of movie making and I’m going to have to watch out for this director in the future, I believe.

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