The Notorious B.M.P.
Last year, when I thanked my ex for the small batch of movies that she sent me in the mail, I withheld the fact that I hadn't watched one of them. In fact, I purposely avoided seeing this one particular movie when it came out, and was a little put off by the fact that–because of her–I now had a copy of it on my shelves.
Well, fast forward to late last night: I wanted to watch a movie, but didn't feel like leaving the apartment to hit up the nearby Redbox. There also wasn't anything I owned that I felt like re-watching. So, I went ahead and popped in the flick that–for well more than a year–I had been avoiding like the monthly notices of a credit card company.
Back when The Notorious Bettie Page came out, I recall reading a decent review of the film. But the critic didn't make me feel as if it was something I wanted to see. Even more, despite the fact that it was basically a good review, somethin' seemed amiss in how the film impacted the critic. I saw that as a reflection on the writer/director Mary Harron.
Having Bettie Mae Page's story virtually committed to memory, there was no way I was gonna sit though some filmmaker's heavy-handed hack job that got dolled up as an "artistic vision." I had a pretty film idea of what went down in my head, and that made me extremely reluctant to give audience to someone else's version of the facts.
Because I had published a zine dedicated to Page a few years ago, I was also a tad bit concerned that I might have gotten something wrong. I'm pretty thorough when I research the subjects that I write about and try hard to avoid mistakes. And though I still find myself regularly making peace with typos and misspellings, I'm pretty hardcore when it comes to matters of fact.
Adding to my reluctance was another very real concern: that maybe some actress was given the role of Bettie Page because she was the casting directors' 4th cousin on her father's side. I didn't know who Gretchen Mol was, but based on what I saw in the trailer, and even on the DVD cover, she didn't come across like a "Bettie Page."
Well, after finally facing down my long list of concerns, I can say that something about that review I read was seriously amiss. But it wasn't because of the writer/director. It was the movie reviewer.
Like I said, the writer actually turned in a favorable a critique, but something wasn't connecting. I find myself now thinking that it was some young critic-in-training who didn't completely get it. I mean, sure, they recognized that it was a good movie (and it really, really was), but maybe it also came across like a history lesson, and history just wasn't their strong suit.
Or maybe they weren't so young at all, but still couldn't completely submit to the work because it didn't exactly conform to the sanctioned view of life in the 1950s.
I have older friends who like to pretend that life in America was so great in the '50s, and only got bad in the 60s and 70s. The brutal reality is that this country's dirty laundry was just finally getting aired, and the inconvenient truth was that our shit smelled just as bad as everybody else's. Maybe even more so, because people had lied to themselves and said it smelled like laundry detergent.
During the 1950s, intentional efforts were often made by publishers, editors and others to present a world through radio, magazines and movies that was largely falsified. And people (like the ones I know) clearly drank the Kool-Aid. But the times were not simple, and life was not like the then-weekly radio broadcasts of Father's Knows Best.
In the real world, children could get molested by their father's, women could get raped by "nice guys," and the careers of countless wannabe starlets could go from a screen test to a cum-stained casting couch, and no further. Exploitation in all its heartbreaking forms would be as rampant as in any other era, but people were too frightened into submission to talk about it.
As tastefully as such subjects could have been handled, it were those darker realities of life in the 1950s that were put on display in The Notorious Bettie Page. I can't say that the look was an unflinching one, but it was one of the boldest attempts that I've yet seen. And as disturbing as it could be sometimes be, it was also still refreshing to see that such issues were addressed.
With regard to actress Gretchen Mohl, I think that she did an excellent job. Much better than I ever would have expected, having known nothing about her before hand. I could tell that she studied her ass off for the role of Bettie Page, managing to even nail some of the famous pin-ups most subtle poses and facial expressions.
With the exception of the always likable Lily Taylor, I enjoyed the fact that there were no overly recognizable faces in this film. Well, there was one other guy whose face I recognized (playing a French photographer), but he was really good in the part, and looked a lot scruffier than when I saw him as a very clean-cut character in Chinese Box several years ago.
Well, David Strathairn (Good Night, Good Luck) was also in it, but he's such an understated actor that you almost forget who he is. And he didn't play a central part either, which really helped to keep me immersed in the illusions of the film
As far as the production, I thought it was very effective that the telling of the story was done mostly in black and white, with some splashes of color. From the trailer, and even the stills on the back of the DVD, it wasn't marketed that way. That was probably a smart move. There are two things that the average movie-watcher in the U.S. avoids: the first is subtitles, and the second is black and white movies.
Had I known in advance, though, that the film had been shot that way, I might have taken a chance on it sooner. I think it shows that the filmmaker really has balls. Yes, it was written and directed by a woman. I was being ironical.
Then again, had I known that a woman was behind the film, it might have influenced me to see it sooner. Male perspectives on stuff like this can be a little...well, redundant.
If one of the usual suspects had made this film, it's likely that the significance of pin-up maker Irving Klaw's sister and the photographer Bunny Yeager would have been underplayed. Maybe even the fact that the guy who got Page into modeling was black. Things like that get glossed over all the time. It was only after seeing the director's name in the credits that it made sense.
For me, it also helped to explain an early scene in the movie, when Bettie started her pin-up career by posing for amateur shutterbugs. One of the the photographers was a very masculine woman. (The term trans-gender didn't exist then, so I ain't retroactively applying it now.) I actually had to rewind that part to see if I'd actually seen it correctly. It was stroke of genius.
On a personal note, it felt pretty validating to see that the filmmaker took the same approach to this story that I did when writing a brief text piece for my Page After Page zine. Like Harron, I used the 1955 Kefauver Hearings on the Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency as a framing device. It seemed like a great way of explaining why this country's most popular pin-up suddenly faded from public life.
The only real difference in our approaches is that I highlighted the significance that comic books played on the formation of that committee. Men's magazines and pornography were secondary considerations. Anyway, as I watched it all unfold, at times it felt as if my zine was a little companion piece to a much larger work, like movie keepsake booklets from back in the day.
Though I've already thanked her, I have to again thank my ex for sending me The Notorious Bettie Page. Good art will often inspire good conversation, and this one-sided convo was provoked by a cinematic work of art that I really enjoyed. A work that I'm now pretty pleased to have featured among the movies on the shelves.