Even if you don't know who Bettie Page is, chances are, you've seen her image before. The infamous pin-up girl-turned-bondage queen's jet-black hair, cropped bangs, torpedo bust line and hourglass figure coupled with an impossibly innocent face and sweet, sweet smile earned her countless fans, as well as the nickname "Dark Angel", during her heyday in the 1950's.
Writer-director Mary Harron thought that it would be a good idea to make a biopic of the now-hermitic former it-girl. Of course, writer-director Mary Harron thought that it would be a good idea to adapt Bret Easton Ellis's smelly load-ode to emptiness, American Psycho, for the screen, and watching that was a torture that even Saddam would never have stooped to. While her attempt to glorify and demystify the Tennessee sweetheart is well intended, it is not sound, which is due to a combination of a shortfall of vision paired with the fact that other than the gifts Page flaunted, there may not have been much more to her. Harron does not fully convey the sense that the provocative photos that Page posed for were perceived by most as so deviant and mind-bogglingly soul-warping. Today, any 12-year-old can go to any suburban mall and buy the kind of now-trendy fetish wear that Page and girls like her made scandal in, and that progression is only hinted at in a line of dialogue at the end. Aside from the way that Page (Gretchen Mol) consistently responds to others' adverse reactions to her work, the only real feeling we get that Page faced any real scorn or legal peril is from the loosely staged scenes depicting the Senate Subcommittee On Juvenile Delinquency headed by Chattanooga Rep. Estes Kefauver, which ends in a puzzling dismissal of Page before she can testify. Shooting the bulk of the film in black-and-white and casting Oscar nominee David Strathairn from Good Night, and Good Luck. to play Kefauver must have seemed that it would lend credence to the grave nature of what was at stake (nebulous concepts like freedom vs. decency), but with Harron writing little more than thumbnail characterizations of these people and events, its heft is out left. The way she writes Kefauver, he comes off as a one-track clone of witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, with no hint of the Mob-busting progressive that he really was. Also, there is no suggestion of any kind of continuity in this kind of persecution -- of music, of movies, of comic books, of whatever was a convenient target -- either in the years prior to or following. Some kind of framing of the Production Code that bound movie producers to a standard of so-called decency might have been helpful, even if it was to illustrate how the Code was no longer favored like it used to be and how films like the ones that Page starred in were exempted because they existed in a realm outside the outside of Hollywood.
The black-and-white does lend the kind of unseemly kitsch feel that Tim Burton's Ed Wood had in spades, but the color footage -- depicting Page's Miami retreats -- is the nicest to look at. Harron and company shot on outmoded Technicolor stock, resulting in a rich, oversaturated color that even while sort of flat looking, lends a real sense of time and place. Even on Harron's slight budget, which is most evident when she tries to fake footage that doesn't entirely exist as stock, she and her crew do create enough of an escape so we can at least open up to what they're selling, even if we all might not ultimately buy.
Also nice to look at is the drop-dead gorgeous Mol. She is built a lot like Page, and made-up to be a real ringer for her, too. She conveys an innate wholesomeness that is hard to turn down, and is not modest about baring all when called upon. Her unmodified figure is stunning, too, and by casting such a natural beauty who looks so much the part, we can at least see what the folks who made her famous saw when they hired her and launched her star-ward.
Those people would be entrepeneurs Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister, Paula (Lili Taylor), and I'm sure I'm not the first one to suggest that their story is one that might have made a more engaging film. Bauer captures the spirit of Mr. Klaw's shameless self-promoter (as if telling people you have something they would like is a sin), as does Taylor, who, along with fellow supporting player Jared Harris, starred in Harron's 1996 arthouse fave, I Shot Andy Warhol. Even though Harris has a look that lends itself to playing less-than-reputable gents, a glimmer of nice-guy usually comes through, like it does here, even as he plays a smut peddler.
The film clocks in at only 91 minutes, and it is easy to second-guess and pick scenes that would have been better extended (or cropped). Page's invitation to Hollywood by billionaire producer Howard Hughes was a lost opportunity to more fully build up our expectations, only to have them dashed when we realized that Page couldn't act. Even though Hughes supposedly never met Page face-to-face (the wretched dramatization Bettie Page: Dark Angel shows Hughes peeping at the doll undressing, à la Norman Bates), even a fleeting, fictionalized encounter with him telling her to stick to what she does best would have been effective. What of photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), who met Page in Miami and shot the famous photos with Bettie and the leopards? She was integral, yet Harron barely touches her. And of course, more Lili Taylor is never a bad thing. I want my Klaw movie!
Again, the movie just isn't developed enough. Did Page quit the business because she found God? Was it the trauma of the Kefauver Hearings? Was it because the public was developing a taste for things that Page, in all her naiveté, could not deliver? From this film, anyway, we will never learn that, although in the end, maybe Page's story is best left a legend because it's not really complex or interesting enough to tell in the first place.