Out from under it

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Times Staff Writer

IF anyone understands the treacherous power of the pinup, it’s Gretchen Mol. In 1998, the young actress graced the cover of Vanity Fair, wearing only a see-through slip and a very dangerous headline: “Is She Hollywood’s Next It Girl?”

When the films that had prompted Vanity Fair’s cover choice -- “Rounders” and Woody Allen’s “Celebrity” -- fizzled, no one banged on then-Editor Graydon Carter’s door demanding a retraction, but Mol has lived with the “It Girl” legacy for years.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 16, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanity Fair editor: A Sunday Calendar section article about actress Gretchen Mol referred to Graydon Carter as the former editor of Vanity Fair. Carter remains editor of the magazine.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 16, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanity Fair editor: An article about actress Gretchen Mol last Sunday referred to Graydon Carter as the former editor of Vanity Fair. Carter remains editor of the magazine.

So there is something fitting about her decision to play the ultimate professional pinup in HBO Films’ “The Notorious Bettie Page,” which comes to theaters Friday. While the women are physically dissimilar -- in her prime, Page was tall, dark and stacked while Mol is fair and slender -- they share a strange, almost dissonant cheerfulness about a business that in all its myriad forms can appeal to, and bring out, the absolute worst in people.


The similarity between the women came as a surprise to Mol. When her agent sent her the script, she initially could not see why anyone would cast her as a woman who became a noir icon through the naughty and quasi-S/M cheesecake work she did in the ‘50s. “Physically, it was certainly a stretch,” Mol says, “and I had the cartoon image of Bettie as being very tough, you know, the Bad Girl. Then I came to learn more about her, and I realized that emotionally it was a very good role for me.”

Ostensibly, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Page’s strange but prolific photographic career, which ended in 1957 -- after she became part of a series of Senate hearings aimed at pornography, Page experienced a change of heart about her work and returned to her religious roots. But more pointedly, the movie and Mol’s performance capture the walking (and kneeling and spanking) enigma that was Bettie Page -- a sweet-natured, highly moral young woman who considered the corsets and spike heels just costumes, the whips and ball gags simply props and the genre of fetish photography an extension of her modeling career.

“After looking at the photos and watching the film loops I realized there really was this childlike quality about Bettie,” Mol says. “There was the leather and the whips but always in the middle was this very friendly kind of smile. It wasn’t that she was naive,” she adds, “but she didn’t choose to judge the people who wanted the pictures or think about what they would do with them.”

Likewise, the film does not delve too deeply into the inner workings of such an apparent contradiction -- early sexual abuse is hinted at, as is an abusive marriage and a gang molestation. But neither Mol nor writer-director Mary Harron attempt to psychoanalyze their subject. Instead, they simply show the facets of Page’s life and, compared with the stiffness and pomposity of the Method acting classes she struggles through, the ambience of the photo shoots is friendly and professional, ropes and stilettos not withstanding.

“Mary believes that at the center of everyone is a mystery,” Mol says. “And the idea that you can sum up a person in two hours, to say that this one event or this one person is what made such and such happen, is ridiculous.”


Redefining success

AFTER 10 years in the business, Mol knows one thing for certain: Few things turn out the way you expect them to. She learned early on that if prediction is a perilous pastime, explanation is almost as empty.


After the It-ness of the Vanity Fair cover failed to materialize, she found herself packaged as an actress famous for not becoming famous, nevermind that she continued to have a successful acting career.

“The hard part,” she says of the acting life, “is letting go of caring what people think. It’s good that I had that experience when I was young, that I learned what can happen because I know in my life what is important. I have been creative about finding places I can do my work, and I have taken great satisfaction from it.”

The places she has found work include stage, screen and television. On Broadway, she starred in the final run of “Chicago” and Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things”; on TV, she was part of David E. Kelley’s short-lived “Girls Club” and the remake of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” In films, she has played opposite the likes of Sean Penn (“Sweet and Lowdown”) and Ray Liotta and Joseph Fiennes (“Forever Mine”).

“I always wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I mean, during the second grade science fair we were supposed to do a project about how the planets revolved around the sun and I, of course, wanted to be the sun. But I don’t have that problem, of comparing myself to some image. I feel like, in any career, if you can get ahold of one or two great parts, then you are having a great career.”

Mol is, obviously, very pretty, with white, even teeth and skin of the sort you would imagine bruises easily. She is sitting on the back patio of the Sunset Tower Hotel and she speaks softly, often ducking her head as if trying to keep the people at the other tables from hearing her.

She and her husband of just two years, director Tod Williams, recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, and she hasn’t quite acclimated herself to the differences. In New York, she says, you can sit in a restaurant slap up against three other tables and say the most intimate things to your friend without anyone paying the least attention.


“Here,” she says, gesturing, “there’s more space, but you feel like people are leaning in.”

They came to L.A. because Mol felt it was time to put both feet in the water, she says. “For years I felt like there was just as much work in New York as here,” she says. “But lately I noticed directors weren’t coming to New York so much for auditions. I didn’t know if it was a trend or just my career, but I thought I should come out and see what it was like to live here.”

Like many East Coast natives, she had her prejudices against Los Angeles, fueled, she realizes now, by the fact that every time she came here, she was leading a temporary sort of life.

“You’re either in some big hotel or a rented house, and you’re working or doing meetings and then it’s over and you go home,” she says. “It’s no wonder I thought of it as being sort of unreal.”

Of course, moving to L.A. doesn’t mean you get to stay here, not if you’re an actress. Weeks after she and her husband moved into their Venice house, Mol was up in Portland, Ore., for almost two months filming a movie. And after doing this round of publicity for “Bettie Page,” she’s off to shoot another film in New York. Slowly, she says, the house and the town are becoming home.

“You really have to take responsibility for structuring your own life here. In New York,” she says, “you can just walk out onto the sidewalk or go sit in a cafe and you’re surrounded by people. Then at least you can pretend you’re doing something. I can see how in the dry periods, L.A. could be very lonely if you aren’t careful.”


Not that she’s exactly burning up the premiere-and-party circuit. “Oh, no,” she says, blushing under the shade of an accommodating patio umbrella. “I am so boring, and I really don’t know that many people out here. I don’t consider myself famous or anything....”

In moments like these, it is difficult to understand how she was able to throw herself into a role like Bettie Page, which for all its don’t-drink, don’t-smoke niceness still required a fair amount of nudity, including some full-frontal. Asked if that was difficult, Mol doesn’t bat an eye.

“I’ve done love scenes that were much more difficult,” she says. “I just got behind Bettie’s philosophy of what’s the harm, what’s the shame? It’s just a celebration of the body. Of course, it helped that I had the wig,” she says referring to Page’s trademark long, black hair with puffy bangs. “When I saw [the dailies] I never thought of it as Gretchen. And when I was doing it, I always felt I had something on.”