Tuesday, 5 February 2008


In 1996, Mary Harron directed “I Shot Andy Warhol”. Four years later, she directed one of the finest book to film adaptations yet seen in “American Psycho”. Five years after that (and a full seven years until its Australian cinema release last year), Harron gives us her feature for HBO, “The Notorious Bettie Page”. There you have it; 3 films in 12 years.

On the other hand,
Michael Bay, during the same time span, has delivered 6 films – “The Rock”, “Armageddon”, “Pearl Harbor”, “Bad Boys II”, “The Island”, and last year, “Transformers”.

What is wrong with this picture? For, it seems to me, something is seriously awry in Hollywoodland when Harron, a writer-director of obvious intelligence, imagination, wit and talent as evidenced by her output to date can only get 3 films up in 12 years whereas Bay, whose work at best runs no deeper than a puddle of camel piss in a desert, can continue to have squillions of dollars thrown at him so that, every two or three years, he may make shit.

Oh, well. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was wont to say, and say often. So it goes.

Unlike so many biopics of late, “The Notorious Bettie Page” does not outstay it’s welcome in length. It seeks to be neither hagiography or hatchet job as regards its subject, nor does it attempt to psychoanalyse in that twee fashion so beloved of the genre, that is to say, it does not ask “What dark matters of the soul did haunt Page so that she would do such things as she does?”.

She did such things because she could, and no harm was caused in the doing of them. Yet, we watch “The Notorious Bettie Page” fully expecting that, as has been traditional, the “naughty” girl will eventually be punished for her transgressions against the public morality of the time and she will be shown suffering mightily for her sins until, finally, the good burghers of the township relent their disapproval and offer the now humbled (read, humiliated) lass redemption. Happily, however, Harron resists this type of witless twaddle leaving the film, and the character of Page, at, not a moment of moral redemption, but a moment of choice, that choice fully entered into as a matter of the character’s free will.

And, while it is true (at least as far as the film itself implies) that Page had, in her earlier pre-fame life, endured certain horrors of abuse, she is never portrayed as victim. Instead, as directed by Harron and played by
Gretchen Mol, she is a person who simply picks up and moves on with things and does so with a refreshing lack of tortured angst and introspection.

Mol is excellent in the title role, unselfconscious, simple and joyous, avoiding silly actor tricks like the temptation to layer her interpretation with “moments” of moody business that may “assist” an audience in a deeper understanding of the subject when no such thing is, or should ever be, required. And, Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, as Irving and Paula Klaw (the brother and sister most responsible for Page’s infamy) are an engaging duo. The only false note, for me, was Jared Harris’s portrayal of fetish photographer John Willie. Harris appears to have settled on an impersonation (a very good one) of Peter O’Toole for his character, and while this must have been great fun to play (it’s fun to watch, too), I couldn’t help wondering why they just didn’t ask O’Toole to do it.

The soundtrack is also a treat in its own right, featuring tracks by Clifford Brown, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus and Julie London among others. Irritatingly, however, the region 4 DVD omits the commentary by Harron and Mol available to US viewers.

Here’s what some others had to say ...

Urban Cinefile (Australia) (Andrew L. Urban)

"Gretchen Mol is sensational as Bettie, a most contradictory character, yet one that rings true precisely because she is so self contradictory - at least at first glance. But Mol's performance is the more stunning because she makes it seem like a superficial reading - until we begin to recognise the absence of depth to Bettie is part of her being. A simple Southern girl is the perfect, trusting (too trusting, as the opening scenes underline) innocent who stumbles into the world of sexual deviation and hardly notices. Naïve with a capital N."

The New Yorker (David Denby)

"... This movie ... is lively and sweet-tempered and often funny. “Bettie Page” was produced by the enterprising HBO, and the filmmakers’ workup of the period is modest in scale but affectionately detailed: the black-and-white, fifties-New York night scenes have the noirish excitement of the Times Square episodes in “Sweet Smell of Success.” The urban jungle gives way to Miami Beach (where Bettie retreated now and then) as a wondrous paradise, with dazzling beach scenes that look like Technicolor and interiors in soothing pastels. It’s the American fifties as depicted in the movies of the time, in a visual style shaped by a fascination with the corrupt pleasures of the city and a yearning for clean-washed nature. In one way, however, Harron and her crew are realists. They have created a kind of comic archeology of postwar smut, and the exuberant, casually lousy aura of that world feels right ... some scenes that might have been borderline exploitation, or just corny—Mol purring at the camera, or romping in the woods with a pair of cheetahs—turn out to be ineffably beautiful. When Mol pulls off her clothes and goes starkers in the great outdoors, we get a burst of visual glory that provokes something less than lust but more than awe."

Salon (Stephanie Zacharek)

""The Notorious Bettie Page" -- which was written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, the writer, producer and star of the 1992 film "Go Fish" -- maps a landscape of joy and pleasure in the face of prudery and repression ... a true feminist movie, but one that avoids cant and facile theories about victimization. Harron and Turner find a great deal of friendly good humor in the Bettie Page story, and Harron has framed that story beautifully ... Mol ... plays Bettie's lack of self-consciousness with the kind of boldness that you rarely see in young actresses these days. In a world where many actresses still won't do a sex scene without the protection of an artfully draped sheet, Mol holds nothing back, emotionally or physically."

From 2007, Trailer for "The Notorious Bettie Page"

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