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"The Notorious Bettie Page": Finding the girl behind the pinup posters
Special to The Seattle Times
A curiously formal portrait of a repressed era, Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page" mixes black-and-white and color photography to suggest the emotional restraints and eruptions of the 1950s.
The movie begins in monochrome, as the heroine, an uninhibited Tennessee model named Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), finds herself swept up in a politically convenient government investigation into "insidious filth." Those are the words of Sen. Estes Kefauver, played by David Strathairn, recently seen in 1950s black-and-white as Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Only gradually does color take over, as Bettie, a devout Southern Christian, begins to establish her identity. She may seem hopelessly naive, especially for a popular pinup who became one of Playboy's first nudes, but the perfectly cast Mol's career-peak performance makes the character's journey entirely credible. Her Bettie Page is adventurous yet sensible, both wise and childlike in her acceptance of the more dubious aspects of the opportunities that come her way.
Even after she's abandoned her career and gone back to the church, she's only too happy to point out that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed until they sinned. Whether she's trying to make peace with her mother (Ann Dowd), struggling with an abusive dud husband (Norman Reedus) or learning how to act from a Method-obsessed teacher (Austin Pendleton), her joyously independent spirit always wins out.
If Mol seems to hold back at times, it's because the supporting characters in Harron and Guinevere Turner's script come off as caricatures (you'd never guess that she went back to that husband for a second try at marriage). She needs to share one memorable, well-written scene with another actor, but it never arrives during the course of 91 minutes. As a result, the film feels thin and underpopulated, even if Strathairn and Lili Taylor (as a photographer who salvages Bettie's pictures) work hard to create the illusion of depth.
A decade ago, Harron gave Taylor one of her great roles, as the homicidally inclined Valerie Solanas in "I Shot Andy Warhol." Turner co-wrote the landmark 1994 lesbian film "Go Fish." Their collaboration on "Bettie Page" feels like a rough draft in which one element — Mol's performance — stands out as the real thing.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company