Notorious Bettie Page, The

Sketchy and fragmented, The Notorious Bettie Page offers a disappointingly shallow look at the 1950s pin-up girl, who for a brief time captured the sexual fantasies, anxieties, and contradictions of her era.

It's legit to ask what is Mary Harron's movie really about It's certainly not a biopic, since the saga covers only three or four chapters of the sex icon's life. Nor is it satisfying as a contemporary feminist deconstruction of a fascinating cultural phenomenon.

Harron claims that she wanted to avoid the simplistic psychologistic approach that defines most of Hollywood biopics, opting for more mystery and ambiguity. Which is fine. However, her film lacks any discernible POV, centering instead on period details that highlight but don't illuminate her heroine's turbulent and bizarre life. As co-written (with Guinevere Turner) and directed, The Notorious Bettie Page is a rather simple and restrained yarn, devoid of real emotions or “juices,” least of all erotic-sexual juices, which the subject almost dictates.

The narrative's framing device is quite conventional. Set in 1955, the story begins (and ends) with Page waiting to testify before a publicity-seeking hunt by Senator Estes Kefauver, played by David Strathairn in scenes that recall his recent film, Good Night, and Good Luck (more about it later). As the anxious, modestly dressed Page waits, the yarn flashes back to her God-fearing adolescence in Nashville circa 1936.

The first, nicely handled scene is set in church, which will feature prominently throughout her life. Back home, we get intimations of a stern mother and abusive father. Later, walking in the woods with an admiring suitor, Page is intrigued by his flirtatious determination to marry her.

Cut to 1942 and an unhappily married Page, now physically abused by her husband. Next thing, she is packing her suitcase and moves out. A troubling scene follows, in which Page is invited to a party but is instead driven to a forest where she's gang-raped. We never find out what emotional impact these (and future) abusive men have on Page.

Like other attractive girls of her time, wishing to be an actress, Page moves to New York, where she studies with a pretentious Method acting coach (Austin Pendleton). But onstage, struggling with a Shaw text, shes stiff and insecure; not knowing what to do, she begins to disrobe.

As depicted, Page's life is shaped by chance encounters with various men over which she has little control. The first encounter is on the beach with a black cop who asks to photograph her. (The cop is credited with redoing her hair with bangs, an image for which she would forever be remembered). Page readily agrees, exhibiting no hesitation, and the cop's innocuous photos end up in print.

None of Page's relationships with men is fully explored; they are all cardboard characters. This includes her father, husband, the cop, and Page's acting classmate Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), who becomes her boyfriend. Vacationing in Miami, Page picks up a handsome Caribbean on the beach and goes to bed with him, but we never see her making love or getting excited–by him or any other man. Page is presented as an asexual woman, with no erotic life; there's not even a single sex scene in the whole story.

In due time, Page becomes a favorite of “nature” and girlie magazine photographs. She appears in coy nudie magazines like Bachelor and Wink and in amateurish out-of-focus lesbian bondage movies like Sallys Punishment. Page eventually ends up working for the dirty-picture peddlers Paula and Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), a middle-aged couple who specialize in mild S&M and bondage photographs. They, too, are depicted as nice, honest people; during bondage shoots, the Klaus offer good food and good advice.

The photographers Page works with are portrayed as nerdy or harmless. It's unlikely that there never was a bad incident at these photo shoots, yet Harron sticks to her restrained and nonjudgmental approach of both heroine and photo work.

Periodically, Page writes letters to her friend Goldie, which inform the viewers about her happenings. And periodically, she retreats to Miami Beach, which is depicted as a paradise with dazzling beaches and healthy-looking people wearing pastel colors, as if Miami is the answer to the corruptive influence of New York City.

The film's main problem is Harron's lack of clear conception of her lead character. Page comes across as an ordinary woman who just poses for nudie photographs, disregarding the racy nature and kinky effects of her work. She is always agreeable, always open to any request. There is not a bad bone in Page's body, which makes her uninteresting as a dramatic persona.

It's not that Page's real-life lacked drama or tragedy. We learn that she was denied a scholarship, that she married and divorced quickly during the War, that she went through a series of failed auditions, that she had unfulfilled relationships.

Harron may not consider her film to be psychological, but by default, she, too, reduces her heroine's life to a series of male-induced traumas, without showing their effects on her protagonist. Her sketchy retelling of Pages saga fails to probe into Pages bizarre mixture of attributes. Is Page a nave, sweet-natured country girl who was brainwashed by singing preachers Did she never give an account to herself of who she is and what she's doing

When her earnest boyfriend Marvin voices his disgust at her cheap bondage photos, Page doesn't understand what the fuss is about The photos, she claims, are just simple fun. No one got hurtshe and the other girl are just pleasure-givers.

Page keeps telling the story of Adam and Eve, how they were first naked and then clothed. Similarly, she claims that God first wanted her to be naked, then to be clothed. But she forgets to mention the serpent, the temptation, and the danger in the Garden of Eden–and so does director Harron.

Throughout her life, Page is shaped by men's abuses and needs, yet she is not seen to be angry or frustrated. Au contraire, she poses happily for them; it's the only time she feels free and proud.

The coda, in which Page reclaims Jesus, is abrupt and neutral, with no condescension. To the very end, Page insists that she's not ashamed of anything she has done because that's what the Lord wanted her do.

The actual Page was a pretty woman with black hair, strong shoulders and thighs, and big pointed breasts. In contrast, the naturally blond Gretchen Mol flaunts a slender and elegant body, with beautifully proportioned breasts and shapely legs. For the movie, Mol is heavily made up, with dark hair and bangs and tresses draped around her neck.

Flaunting a beautiful figure, Mol is splendid to watch, dressed or undressed. Intrigued by Mol's body (as she was with Christian Bale's in American Psycho), Harron endlessly exposes her from every possible angle and in any possible clad. Here she's purring at the camera, romping in the woods with a pair of cheetahs, pulling off her clothes and going naked in the outdoors.

Harron depicts her as a friendly and well meaning girl-next-door, just a bit naughty with her black lace and stiletto heels. Worse, Harron views pornography tame and harmless: The photo shoots are presented as routine and silly acts that leave Page totally unaffected.

Stylistically, the black-and-white opening shows a busy Times Square dirty-magazine store and Senate pornography hearings. Like George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the same period, Harron's movie is mostly in black-and-white, which is proper, considering that Page's famous images are monochromatic.

The period details are modest but nicely detailed. The New York night scenes have the noirish style of movies of that era, including the quintessential Times Square picture, The Sweet Smell of Success. We get glimpses of the primitively designed magazines with raw black-and-white photographs, the boyish camera club enthusiasts who shoot Page in black negligees in a suburban living room.

Nonetheless, there is no consistent logic to the switch from dramatic footage and archival material, or the shift from black-and-white to vibrant color for Page's “nudist” photo sessions in Nature, as well as for her visits to Florida.

Harron has made two interesting, if also flawed, pictures, I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. The Notorious Bettie Page is by far her weakest, least involving work. To be fair, the movie is not dull–there's always something onscreen–but it's too placid and never really provocative.

Page, who's still alive, disappeared in 1957 after becoming a Jesus fanatic. The picture should have included a postscript updating us with her life over the past five decades.