With "The Notorious Bettie Page," writer-director Mary Harron has determined that the most provocative pin-up girl of the 1950s was really just a semi-pornographic equivalent of Forrest Gump, Zelig or Chance Gardner. As played by Gretchen Mol in a career-rejuvenating performance, Bettie Page was a naughty picture savant, an innocent creature drawn into and then out of smut at only the slightest provocation. Although Page is described as the model who shocked the nation, "The Notorious Bettie Page" is notable only for how very unshocking it is. It's a superficial and formulaic biopic that mostly wastes the admirable efforts of its leading lady.
After a brief framing visit to 1955, where Sen. Estes Kefauver (the criminally underused David Strathairn) is holding hearings on pornography, "Notorious" flashes back to introduce us to Bettie, a church-going girl who's already flirting with the guys and being molested by her father. For the rest of the movie, the character analysis goes no deeper than that, as Bettie ages and happenstance pushes her into modeling. At first she's just walking on the beach when she's asked to take bikini pictures. Then she's doing lingerie shoots. Soon the pictures are getting kinkier and more revealing and she's even branching out into stag films like "Sally's Punishment" and "Second Initiation of the Sorority Girl." As a pin-up, she's a sensation, but she really wants to be an actress. She just isn't very good. And how is any of this meshing with her religious upbringing?
Shot mostly in retro black-and-white (with an aesthetically appealing transition into period Technicolor for several scenes), "Bettie Page" is a resolutely old-fashioned movie. The script just layers one event on top of the other with a "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" story structure that unfolds without any drama. Even the darkest events of Bettie's life -- her childhood sexual abuse or her rape as a young woman -- play out without tension or trauma and even when her modeling becomes increasingly perverse, she still manages to work with the most family-oriented peddlers (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor as the Klaws) or endearing depraved fetishists (Jared Harris as John Willie) in the business.
For better or for worse, movie takes its off-putting happy-go-lucky demeanor from its main character and its star. Mol's performance is one of utter exuberance, capturing the joy that Page felt in being photographed. In a fetching wig, looking utterly splendid no matter how much or little she's wearing, Mol is absorbed by Page's sense of fun. At no point in her uneven career has Mol even hinted at being capable of so effortlessly mesmerizing the camera.
Mol is so good that I'm convinced she could have easily handled a more probing character study of Page's real personality beyond the superficial. In order for that to have worked, though, Harron and Turner would have had to write a movie in which Page actually interacted with the world around her. Surrounded by an assortment of one-dimensional caricatures, Page drifts through her own life.
I guess there's a point to be made in depicting Bettie Page as a woman whose character was built in childhood and never changed even as her life changed. In this case, though, it makes for an uninvolving movie.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times