Aside from a vivid, pulpy prologue in a surprisingly well-lit smut shop, The Notorious Bettie Page is fairly unsuccessful as a biopic but more successful as a meditation on female role-playing and male fantasy. In many ways, it's an extension of the ideas developed by director Mary Harron, whose adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho was fascinating as both entertainment and argument. Harron's wit and grasp of period details reinforced Ellis' conviction that males remain quivering, depraved invertebrates in search of protective shells even when they are awarded power, money, and sexual satisfaction. Characters slid and squirmed in a slick onscreen mucus composed of hair gel, four-star restaurant grease, and cocaine sweat.
In Bettie Page, these furtive, pale, and perspiring types reappear as the wealthy clientele for tasteful bondage photos, but they are not the focus of the film. And although the period detail is decent, its black-and-white photography is less effective at capturing an era, which is unfortunate because cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel's color sequences capture the Easter-egg colors of 1950s films. But Harron's argument this time -- that women who assume roles that satisfy and comfort such men can lead pretty decent, healthy lives -- is still noteworthy and perhaps more radical than before, even if the end of her film is far too conservative.
Harron's argument is convincing because of Gretchen Mol as Bettie and the film's recreation of photo shoots. Aside from looking like Page, Mol doesn't do much; she offers a pleasing counterweight to the narrow standards of American screen beauty but little else. Yet this isn't a serious flaw. The film offers few psychological clues about why Page entered the pinup business, and aside from one shocking, oleaginous turn by Dallas Roberts, the people and events of Page's early life and hardships pass by quickly. Even Lili Taylor's snappy, Thelma Ritter-esque role as a smut-film den mother and David Strathairn's stiff performance as a political crusader during the inevitable government investigation matter less than the process of image-making and the politics of representation.
Page's many photo sessions are meticulous and businesslike instead of erotically charged. She talks openly and freely to her cameraman and her fellow bondage gals -- more, in fact, than she talks to any of her boyfriends or relatives. The film is near its best during these sequences, where Page's desire to "make people happy" competes with the problems that come with wearing huge stiletto boots. Harron also captures an offhand revelation when one of Page's early photographers asks her to look "horny" and Mol crinkles up her nose in playful disgust as if she were a first-grader asked about which boy in her class is the cutest. Somehow the expression works, and the closest thing to a secret about Page's best pinups is revealed.
Eventually, Page gives up her life to preach the word of God, and Harron's serious, respectful treatment of Page's reconversion to Christianity is the best part of the film. Page achieves the transcendence she mimicked but never claimed for herself in front of the camera. Unfortunately, the film ends on a phony note unrelated to issues of faith.
While Page is quoting Scripture, a passerby recognizes her and tells her about the filthy porn that is making the rounds these days. But wait a minute. Isn't blaming the problems of contemporary society on the corruption of the past as suspicious and reactionary as venerating the past as a time worth reviving? Nobody needs a preachy movie about how and why it's okay to show your keister.