April 13, 2010
 

"The Notorious Bettie Page" Film Review

bettie4.jpg

By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

When I was a high school teenager in the early 1950s in Indianapolis, Indiana, the two major strippers of the era were Tempest Storm and Lili St. Cyr, both of whom my father took me to see perform. Each gave lengthy, rather theatrical acts with layers of costuming, changing color spotlights, and a live, bluesy combo playing upfront and off to one side of the darkened theater.

Lily was the more interesting of the two to watch, as she was a svelte, darkly handsome blond, but both worked the last two minutes of their acts in pasties, dropping their black panties for a split second--almost like Sharon Stone's reveal in the first "Basic Instinct"--before a total blackout and screetch note by the band. They were the live Good Girl counterparts of the femme fatales of film noir and the good girl/bad girl art of vintage paperbacks and pulp magazines.

At about the same time I was making my first nodding acquaintance with Bettie Page, on family trips over to Dubuque, Iowa to visit relatives. My dad would take me to the Union Cigar Store on State Street, where he'd go behind green curtains to shoot pool while I sat upfront by the pulp and paperback racks. This is where I discovered the pulps, but tucked discreetly behind the pulps were the men's adventure magazines, which essentially were cheaper, earthier versions of Esquire, many of which contained topless photo essays on a starlet or model. Bettie was in a number of these, and I remembered her name because it was the same as Mitch's girl Betty in Irving Shulman's "The Amboy Dukes," the 1947 juvenile delinquency novel that was being passed around high school as the hot under-the-covers read of the era. (It was filmed as "City Across The River" with Tony Curtis and Julia Adams as Mitch and Betty, followed by two Shulman sequels in novel form, the first of which, "Cry Tough," was filmed with John Saxon and Linda Cristal. These were the hot books and movies around my Indiana high school in 1952 through 1955.)

I was reminded of all this coming-of-age material and experiences watching Mary Harron's exquisitely rendered history of "The Notorious Bettie Page." Harron's film traces Bettie's fundamentalist church upbringings and childhood abuse into her first ventures as a pin-up--discovered by amateur photographers, then by Irving and Paula Klaw as an adjunct to their Movie Star News still store, and then more professional photog-raphers like Bunny Yeager, the first female to create how-to books on photographing women in the altogether. In particular, the film gives considerable attention to Betty's crossing-the-line from studio pinup sessions into light bondage, which are shown as painless and innocent experiments supported by friendly models and the expert, affectionate tutelage and encouragement of photog Paula Klaw.

The under-the-counter bondage magazine collections, and some 8mm films of the same PG frolics, form the dramatic arc of the film's delving into the Klaws' problems with postal authorities, local decency laws and eventually the Washington DC hearings headed by Senator Estes Kefauver. The senator is played, ironically enough, by David Strathairn doing a reversal of his Edward R. Murrow persona in "Good Night And Good Luck.." Eventually Betty turns back to her childhood faith, abandons her modeling and becomes a crusader for Christ. (The film's accuracy is due in part to the expert advice of Jay Gertzman, who served as Historical Consultant and has been an insightful member of the writer's literature and film noir classes at the 92nd Street Y. )

As in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," almost everything in Mary Harron's film turns on the actor playing the title character. Gretchen Mol bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Bettie Page in her clot hes, and even a closer similarity without her clothes. She's an extraordinary actress, and she suggests that Bettie was only truly alive when she was performing her cute poses and expessions while clutching a stuffed gorilla or a whip. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to portray the one attribute that's powered Page's popularity through decades and generations--the gift of appearing nude without appearing naked. Real people in nudist magazines of the era had the same kind of natural, unaffected demeanor because they posed totally without guile. Gretchen Mol captures Bettie's emergence as the first model to merge that kind of naturalism with the calculated seductiveness of the traditional pin-up girl.

And so, like Johnny Depp who went deep into the boy/girl, angora-wrapped soul of the schlock movie director Ed Wood, Gretchen Mol gives us a Bettie who's never airbrushed but somehow preserves the almost sexless feel of an airbrushed model. I've never seen a performance quite like this, and perhaps it's due to the fact that virtually everyone behind the cameras guiding her was female. The picture shifts from gleaming black -and-white into a ruddy, Kodachrome-like color for various photo sessions. It has an intuitive under-standing of 50's feminine sensibilities that's dead-on.

Movie StarNews today soldiers on in its relatively new location on West 18th Street. It's remained a family-owned business, passed on to the next generation, and still has one of the two best walk-in still collections in New York City. I knew Paula in her last years pretty well, and while she had little interest in tourists stopping by to pick up a "Star Wars" poster, she was always friendly to someone who had a soft spot for Marie Windsor, Adele Jergens, and Audrey Totter. Maybe she was thinking of Bettie, but we never discussed that because the Bettie pics seemed like a footnote to her basic work of archiving Hollywood films and players. Bettie was the Klaws' cottage industry, although the film suggests that her sessions in their upstairs studio were a mainstay. Lili Taylor plays Paula and is instantly recognizable as the cagey, heart-of-gold New Yorker she was in real life. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the latest generation of management to give pride-of-place in their front window to a one-sheet poster of "The Notorious Bettie Page."


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