The director Mary Harron has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching her films “I Shot Andy Warhol” and now “The Notorious Bettie Page,” I often find myself thinking “the book would have been better” – except there’s never any book. It’s the same feeling I get watching a Catherine Breillat film. Having brainy, intellectually astute women at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but often all this thinking gets in the way of an entertaining story. (In fairness to Harron, Catherine Breillat is probably the only woman on the planet who can neuter an internationally famous porn star with her philosophizing. Note: someone needs to cast Rocco Siffredi and “Bettie Page’s” Gretchen Mol together in a romantic comedy as compensation for their fruitless efforts.) I don’t care to see a director’s thought processes on the screen – “If we cut out all sex scenes we can make Bettie the ultimate virgin/whore!” – any more than I wish to see an actor perform a Method exercise in front of the camera. (Note to writer/actress Guinivere Turner: only other actors find Stanislavsky interesting.)
The only thing “indie” about Mary Harron is her attraction to marginalized artists on the fringes of society. Her filmmaking itself is as predictable as any Hollywood hack’s. Did she really need to begin “Bettie Page” with a scene in which the teenage Bettie’s father flashes a “come hither” look and asks to see poor Bettie alone – wink, wink? Very Lifetime network. Not surprisingly, the main problem with Harron’s take on Bettie Page starts with the script. The eponymous character is so underwritten that often-unclothed Mol has nothing to work with. Harron has literally left the poor actress bare-ass naked inside and out! In an effort to make Bettie the wholesome girl -next-door, Harron renders her as much a bland, two-dimensional caricature as any of Hugh Hefner’s interchangeable centerfolds. Besides, I don’t buy that this debate team member, high school salutatorian would be as naïve a starlet as the young Marilyn Monroe. I would hazard to guess it was Page’s lack of naïvete – her utter, painful awareness – that caused the existential crisis (does Jesus disapprove of ball gags and latex boots?) that led her to fall into the arms of the church. Perversely, the actress Gretchen Mol is ever the more engaging because Bettie Page is not. It’s always fascinating to see an actress struggle so hard, grasp at the slightest detail that could transform her character into a living, breathing human being.
Which brings me to perhaps the oddest thing about “The Notorious Bettie Page” – that the lives of the secondary characters prove much more intriguing than that of the central pin-up queen. I’m talking about Irving and Paula Klaw – the godparents of fetish photography – who were taken down by the government at the same time Hugh Hefner avoided punishment for his new publication “Playboy”. The Klaws distaste for nude photos, as if birthday suits were more immoral than corsets and whips, and nude photographer Bunny Yeager’s mutual distrust of the Klaws and their deviant pics. (Which reminded me of the ridiculous sex industry rivalries – doms looking down on escorts and vice-versa – as if Jesus approves of strap-ons but not blowjobs!) The look on Lily Taylor’s face as her Paula Klaw burns the pornographic “evidence” is heart-wrenching. Paula Klaw’s fetish photography was her life’s work and the government like an American Gestapo forced her to destroy her own art. Bettie Page’s life paled in comparison to this drama that swirled all around her. Now if only Mary Harron could stop analyzing the drama long enough to start seeing it.