Sunday, August 19, 2007
I have been meaning to post on Mary Harron's THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005) for awhile now. It is one of the more interesting American films from the past few year years and contains one of my favorite performances from the decade.
When I first heard that a Bettie Page film was going to be made I pretty much dismissed it outright. Bettie is one of those rare icons whose life and importance is near impossible to truly capture. The photographs of her from the fifties remain some of the most important shots of the twentieth century, and proof that the human face and form can project a real spiritual passion that language hasn't come even close to. The photographs of Bettie are a bit like the silent work of Garbo, one feels that everything is being communicated already and any attempt to explain it with words would destroy the effect. This is the main reason I prefer still photographs of Bettie over her filmed shorts.
I became even more dismissive of the film when I found out Mary Herron was directing it. While I admired Lili Taylor's performance in her I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (1996), I found the film itself to be an essentially morally corrupt exercise in re-writing history. Her AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) also left me cold although the film has aged well if just for Christian Bale's creepy and effective title performance.
I have admired Gretchen Mol since she first came on the scene in the nineties and consider her to be one of the most underused actresses of the past decade. Mol possesses a real rare quality about her and would have been right at home in any number of the great film noirs of the forties, their is a real exquisite and glamorous quality about her but I never thought she could pull off Bettie Page. When I heard that she had been cast, she seemed completely wrong for the role and I felt even colder towards the idea of the film.
There is something slight about Herron's Bettie Page, and I mean that as a compliment. The film, which runs just around ninety minutes, is one of the most streamlined film biography's I have ever seen, and yet it works for its subject. Much like Bettie was suddenly there and then gone, Herron's film never attempts to outstay its welcome. It's a portrait of a very intelligent woman at a particular point in her life and never tries to extend beyond that.
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE isn't a particularly deep film. More than anything else it is just a showcase for Mol's striking work as an innocent and sweet woman who gets caught up in a scandal she can't understand. I have seen some people describe Mol's Bettie as too naive but to me it isn't so much that she is unaware, it is that she is simply ahead of her time and can't understand why anyone would find something morally wrong in what she is doing.
Herron's film doesn't attempt to get inside the mind and psychological structure of Page. Some brief childhood scenes are used to show some of the trauma she went through but mostly the film just lets her brief time in the spotlight do all the talking. The film, beautifully shot by Mott Hupfel, is dazzling to look at as Herron perfectly juxtaposes some of Bettie's most colorful shots with the film's crisp black and white photography. Even for its detractors, I have seen few who have questioned how beautiful this film is to look at.
While all of the supporting cast is solid, the film rests completely on Gretchen Mol and she is frankly astonishing. Mol fulfills all of her early promise with this role and gives Bettie Page a real spirit in this film. Whether through close ups of her pretty face or Herron's photography of her lovely body, Mol's performance never feels like an impersonation and she inhabits Bettie Page bravely and perfectly. As the film closes and Bettie has her spiritual awakening Mol manages the very tricky feat of portraying a woman who doesn't regret her past but knows that it is time to step away from it.
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE isn't a perfect film and it isn't the final word on its subject. It doesn't try to be though which makes it even more refreshing. It is a sweet valentine from two talented artists to a remarkable woman they clearly love and admire. Unlike FACTORY GIRL, a film that seems to hate its subject, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is a film very much in love with the spirit and legacy of its title character. Give into its charms if you haven't already or give it another look if it seemed to light the first time through. There is a lot of depth in the film's slim running time that can easily be overlooked on the first viewing.