By Christopher Cappiello
For more than 10 years, while she was directing films like “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” Canadian-born filmmaker Mary Harron was trying to get “The Notorious Bettie Page” made. It started in 1993 when a friend gave her copies of The Bettie Pages, old Bettie Page fanzines, and suggested she make a short film about the cheery Christian girl from Tennessee who almost accidentally became an icon of Eisenhower-era fetish photos.
After a long struggle to find financing, Harron and screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner got backing from HBO and shot the film over 32 days in 2004. A year earlier, they had found their Bettie, surprising many by selecting blond Gretchen Mol to play the smiling pin-up queen with the signature raven hair and famous black bangs.
“I remember I had seen the E! True Hollywood Story of Bettie’s life,” Mol says, when asked what she knew of Bettie before landing the role.
“The first 45 minutes of the program was image after image of this completely joyful, exuberant, spirited woman posing with a whip, or whatever she was doing, and she always had that twinkle in her eye,” she says, fascinated by the juxtaposition of Bettie’s perkiness and the kinkiness of the photos. “And then at the very end she came on and she had the black screen so that nobody could see her. I remember being struck that the voice didn’t go with the images. She had that earthy Southern accent and she had this melancholy quality in her voice. I think that was what drew me into wanting to play her.”
Indeed, it is the incongruity of Bettie Page’s story that makes her life so compelling. A seemingly simple country girl from Tennessee, she divorced her first husband and left home as a very young woman, eventually landing in New York to pursue acting and modeling. A chance encounter with a police officer and amateur photographer on the beach led to a modeling career in which she seemed uncannily at home in increasingly risque settings. Like countless LGBT people, Betty’s life started in a very conservative religious environment, and led her to a path of sexual expression that many would consider “deviant.” While many gay people spend decades trying to resolve those two seemingly disparate parts of themselves, Harron and Mol came to see that they actually weren’t so divergent in Bettie.
“I feel that, in fact, [her modeling and her religion] were of a piece, very much of a piece,” Mol says. “There was something almost mystical in what she brought to her posing. She kind of went to this higher place. And you can see it in the photos. She did seem involved in something bigger.”
Harron adds, “Gretchen began to see in playing the role that Bettie’s sexuality and her religious impulses were almost the same thing, manifestations of the same thing. That she was someone who was looking for transcendence, and when she was posing – particularly when she was posing naked out of doors, which she really loved – there was something that she got there. She was reaching something. There’s something in these photographs, an emotional quality, that translates really intensely – her joy in what she’s doing.”
In addition to the mysterious joy of Bettie Page, “there’s this very strong lesbian subtext to the photos,” says Harron. “It’s part of the naivete of the era. Irving Claw [whose company produced most of Page’s fetish photos and films] would never have any men in the photos because he worried that that would look too much like pornography and he would get in trouble. So it’s kind of an accident, but they all have a very strong girl-on-girl subtext,” she explains with an affectionate laugh.
Although shot on a tight schedule and even tighter budget, “The Notorious Bettie Page” is artfully designed, and Harron shot most of it in black and white, using bright, saturated color only when Bettie goes to Florida for outdoor photo shoots. “From almost the first time I wrote it down, it was black and white,” the director recalls. “After the film was made, I realized it would have seemed almost like pornography if you had shot it in color. That it needed the distance that black and white gave it. Also, it wasn’t just a film about her, it’s a film about the past, it’s a film about a particular era in time and it was very important for the film to signal that era from the very first moment.”
Page lives anonymously these days, refusing public appearances and allowing her photos from 50 years ago to speak for her. But her legacy endures.
“The lack of shame that she had about posing naked was inspiring to me,” Mol says. “And I think that’s why her image is still so revered today. Because she gave permission for people to have and embrace their sexuality and sensuality.”