Gretchen Mol (The Shape of Things, Just Looking) is a sight to behold in Mary Harron's otherwise underwhelming biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page.
This pristine-looking period piece shot mainly in b/w features Mol as a 50's brunette than her normal blonde self in films like Rounders and Sweet and Lowdown.
The screenplay by Harron and partner Guinevere Turner points to plenty of provocative topics, not just because of plenty of nudity from this Tennessee Baptist girl who would become a well-known pinup model. Apparently, the real elderly Ms. Page didn't like the title including the word "Notorious."
The lovely Mol initially projects Bettie as a sweet-natured, down-home girl who moves from her native Nashville to New York City at the end of the 40's. Bettie doesn't mind posing for ogling photographers as the wide-eyed naif has what it takes to get into the business, though initially wanting to become an actress.
Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor (very good in Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol") are Irving Klaw and sister Paula who entice Bettie into being featured in their S & M and Bondage magazines. This business keeps the girls at a distance from the photographers, following strict "decency" codes.
Bettie gets into nude pictorials and bondage shots have a scarcity of clothing, saying this is her form of acting in her innocent Southern drawl. Her talent "seems to make people happy."
The unchronological narrative touches on some physical abuse in Bettie's younger days, but never comes to terms with them, as well as how her religion really figures later in the picture. Florida is a kind of sanctuary for her and Harron splashes in color helping to nicely establish a time and place during these scenes.
Why The Notorious Bettie Page is uninteresting mainly reflects how this fictionalized look doesn't allow motivations out of the character. Mol's "show and tell" is like a shoot, but one without much explanation or psychological underpinnings.
David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) turns up as a moral crusader when Bettie and the Klaws are present at Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency. Ultimately, she is dismissed before one might assume she might speak. But, that is Harron's light testimony of a woman who found her calling into obscurity after famously stripping down for a few years.
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