Notorious Bettie Page by Mary Harron

Mary Harron's third film, The Notorious Bettie Page, is a provocative exploration of sexuality, religion and pop culture in the 1950s, focusing on the fascinating world of famous pin-up girl, Bettie Page. Gretchen Mol stars as Bettie Page, who grew up in a conservative religious family in Tennessee and became a photo model in 1950s New York. Betties legendary fetish poses made her the target of a Senate investigation into pornography, and transformed her into an erotic icon that continues to enthrall fans to this day.

Mary Harron was working on a television news magazine program when she first encountered the story of Bettie Page in 1993. I had never heard of Bettie Page, Harron recalls. I started reading up on her and I was very intrigued by the story. She came from Nashville and I know Nashville pretty well. I was immediately interested in the sex and religion aspects of her story, and the fact that shed sort of disappeared and then come back.

Though Harron was unable to convince her television bosses to produce a segment on Bettie Page, the story stayed with her. She finally decided to tackle Pages life in a feature film, collaborating with screenwriter/actress Guinevere Turner (Go Fish). Harron and Turner ended up honing their screenplay over many drafts and many years, working on it in between other projects. Those projects included Harrons 1996 feature film debut I Shot Andy Warhol, about Valerie Solanas who brought her radical manifestos to Andy Warhols Factory and then made a failed attempt on his life; and American Psycho (2000), Harrons darkly funny adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis infamous novel.

With the screenplay for Bettie Page, Harron and Turner sought to depict Pages times as much as her life. To Harron, history and individual biography are intimately related particularly when the individual is a woman born in the 20th Century. I strongly believe that womens lives changed so extraordinarily radically in the 20th Century that its very hard to separate a womans personal history from the time in which she lived, says the director. If youre a 20th Century woman and Im speaking as one of them the year in which you were born had a radical effect on how your life was going to go. A Bettie Page born ten years later or ten years earlier would have a very different life.

The movie focuses on Pages heyday in the 1950s, a period of American history that has become synonymous with conformity and repressed desire. But it was also the era of Hollywood sex goddesses like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield. Harrons stepmother, who had been a starlet under contract at Fox, offered a first-hand perspective. She said in that period if you were a pretty girl with large breasts people would just give you things like the world was yours, for a brief period, Harron says. There was something about the sexy girl and what she summed up for the culture.

Still, womens roles and what they could be was very restricted. If Bettie hadnt been a pin-up queen she would have been a typist or a
secretary. Bettie accepted the values of her time in that she felt her proper destiny was to settle down with a husband and kids, but she was also a free spirit, a natural bohemian. Betties photos reflect that split – shes like Betty Crocker coming out with a tray of cookies, and yet shes posing with a whip. Shes so wholesome and at the same time shes very sexual.

The films Bettie Page is a woman who embodies two American obsessions, sex and religion, and seems to live easily with both. Harrons reading of Betties religious nature stemmed in part from having spent time in Nashville when her father was a performer on the original Hee Haw. Everything I read about Bettie, and knowing Nashville a little bit, it seemed to me that she had always been religious. That part of the South is such a religious culture. For the poor, the church is this particular thing: when you dont have a friend, you have a friend in Jesus. Its religion as consolation, as refuge. Bettie would have done the modeling and posing and still believed in God. It would have been second nature to her, says Harron.

The movie goes against the current grain of causality and psychological narrative. So many biopics try to explain everything complex and mysterious about their character in terms of childhood trauma. I didnt want to be so reductive, to reduce Betties life to pop psychology. I wanted there to be some mystery and ambiguity, says Harron. Obviously its my interpretation of Betties life because theres a lot of selection involved and Ive chosen to highlight certain events of her life over others. But Im not trying to give a final answer about who Bettie was, because I dont think there is one. I think the truth about Bettie lies within her contradictions.

The Notorious Bettie Page follows the chance encounters and spontaneous decisions that help shape Betties career. It shows us the inadvertent making of a sex icon in circumstances that were relaxed and often downright homey. Betties first job with a camera club takes her to a nice suburban house, where she poses in the living room. The photographers are forbidden from touching the models, under penalty of ejection, and they say, please when asking the girls to turn this way and that. At the studio run by Irving and Paula Klaw, the setup is even more familial; there are jolly group dinners and the shooting of a bondage film becomes a mini country vacation.

In this film, the making of an icon is a rather haphazard process. Bettie kind of falls into this work. She just happens to be good at it, Harron reflects. You see the light-hearted spirit in which these supposedly terrible, awful films were being made. To them, it was just a giggle, really. And they had fun making them. Its wasnt bring done in seedy back rooms. And they were people that she was friends with. There were no men in the movies; its just girls messing around, as far as she was concerned.

Harron scrupulously sought out hard facts when it came to illustrating the day-to-day reality of Betties life and times. The filmmaker was able to interview many who knew Bettie, including the elderly Paula Klaw, who was nearing the end of her life. Paulas son also offered valuable recollections and perspective on the Klaw studio and business operation, which was essentially a mom-and-pop affair.

Harron traveled to Nashville and visited Betties high school, her brother and her first husband Billy Neal. Her old friend Sam Green, who had gone on to make critically acclaimed documentaries including the 2002 Oscar-nominee, The Weather Underground,” joined the project as a researcher. Among other things, Green unearthed transcripts from the Senate subcommittee hearings on pornography, and Harron incorporated the testimony verbatim in the films Senate sequences.

With the screenplay completed, HBO Films joined forces with Killer to produce Bettie Page. The casting process got underway, and Gretchen Mol was one of many actresses who received the script. Mol knew little about Bettie Page beyond the image of a dark-haired woman with bangs who posed in a leopard swimsuit.

Harron had admired Mols work, but admits that the slender blonde actress had not immediately occurred to her for the part of the famously brunette Page. Then Mol came in to audition. Remembers Harron, Gretchen just had an intuitive understanding of Bettie that was so clear from the very first audition she did. Gretchen wasnt acting sexy; she was acting the joy in posing. I think she knew instinctively that that was what Bettie was about: Betties delight in showing herself off, Betties delight in posing. Betties delight in her own body. Then also there was a kind of sweetness, friendliness and good nature. And innocence in the character that was very important to get across. When she actually put the wig on, I really was knocked out – she looked so like Bettie.

Jared Harris (son of Richard) plays John Willie, the avid fetishist, illustrator and photographer. He was a very fascinating character, Harron remarks. He was a fantastic artist, and his photographs are very beautiful fetishistic pictures with a genuine erotic element. My favorite scene in the movie is when Bettie is all tied up and she and John Willie are discussing Jesus. Its such a great contrast between his worldliness and his interest in her and her spiritual life. Hes really interested in her philosophy of life – like how is she doing what shes doing, who is this girl

Harron created the role of Maxie, the British model, with her American Psycho star Cara Seymour in mind. Completing the principal cast are acclaimed actors Chris Bauer (The Wire) as Irving Klaw; David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Estes Kefavuer; Sarah Paulson (Down With Love) as Bunny Yeager; and Jonathan Woodward (WIT) as Betties actor boyfriend, Marvin.

Accurately recreating the world of the 1950s lay at the core of Harrons vision for Bettie Page. From the very beginning, the filmmaker saw it as a black & white film with only a few scenes in color. Black & white gives it the look of the past, which was very important. Entering this black & white world signals you that youre going back in time. Its a very different world. The mores, the values, the way of thinking, the attitudes to women and sex: a lot is different. Then there are all those things, of course, that are the same, Harron laughs. The same issues that pop up in American culture. But it really was a very different time.

Harron and director of photography Mott Hupfel reviewed numerous films as they set about fashioning a drama that merged factual accuracy with 1950s style. They looked at the gritty, low-budget noirs of director Sam Fuller, including Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A.

The lush, supersaturated color of Douglas Sirks melodramas was the primary reference for the sequences of Bettie in Florida, and religious rebirth in particular. Their techniques also harkened back to the 1950s. Harron used black & white 35mm film rather than transfer color film to black & white; the stock for the color sequences was similar to the old-fashioned Technicolor no longer in production. For the reproductions of the Klaw bondage films, including Sallys Punishment, Hupfel used an old hand-cranked 16mm camera with black & white stock that resembled the actual Super 8 footage. Hupfel took an old-style Hollywood approach to lighting, as well. Says Harron, We had banks of lights everywhere when we shot outside. We had huge lights up on the beach at Coney Island, huge lights on the Miami night scene at the water. People these days shoot outdoor scenes very naturalistically, and dont use a lot of light. But we did, so it automatically looks slightly stagy and stylized, which is what we wanted. It does make it look like an old movie.

Meticulous research was important in all aspects of the films, in all departments. Notes Harron, From our art director doing the great graphics, to the props, to wardrobe: everybody gets very immersed in the period. I feel strongly that you have to familiarize yourself with the literature of the time, the pop culture of the time, the events of the time to try to capture how people talked and how people thought.

The Notorious Bettie Page filmed in New York and Miami for 32 days. Over the course of the film, Mol recreates many of Betties celebrated poses. We also see both the making of Sallys Punishment and black & white scenes from the finished film. Mol reports that the filming of those scenes was light-hearted, as the original productions had been. Seeing the original loops, you knew they were trying not to laugh. It felt like a slumber party. When youre dressed up like that, too, you kind of forget it after five minutes. When you walk out in front of the crew, you feel a little exposed and then after five minutes, its just like you have on a costume. It was really fun.

Source music was carefully chosen to complement Betties journey and the tenor of her times. Peggy Lees Its a Good Day offers a droll accompaniment for the filming of Sallys Punishment, while Jeri Southerns An Occasional Man compliments Betties Miami romance with Armand. I wanted to have some women singers, womens voices for different times of her life, Harron explains. The Patsy Cline song Life is like a Mountain Railroad was written into the script. I always thought it was very important in terms of Betties spirit, both her faith and that sense of just stoically keeping on. Shes kind of a drifter. She was always moving, getting on a bus, going somewhere else when bad things happened.

Detailed post-production work was necessary to further establish the mood of a period film. Archival footage was interwoven at particular moments, bringing back vanished road signs and empty rolling highways, not to mention the old, wantonly lit Times Square. An old-fashioned optical printer was used to create scene transitions like wipes and fades, a time and labor intensive process that has all but vanished from contemporary filmmaking. Theres only one person in New York who does them but they look beautiful, I think, says Harron. We tested digital versus optical in those effects, and optical just looked older and more organic. Were probably the last film to do them, which is a shame because it is a beautiful process.

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