After the darkly hilarious 'American Psycho', director Mary Harron returns with a light-hearted yet jerky biopic of Bettie Page, the most successful American pin-up of the 1950s. One of the first ever sex goddesses, it wasn't Bettie's cheesecake images but rather her fetish pictures and films that gave her notoriety when she was subpoenaed by a Senate Subcommittee investigating pornography in the mid-1950s. A few years later Bettie had a religious conversion and subsequently faded from the American consciousness, until a revival of interest in the pin-up queen in the 1970s which continues to this very day.
Bookending the film with Bettie's (Mol, in a star-making performance) soberly dressed appearance outside the door of the Subcommittee investigation, Harron's film portrays Bettie's life from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s, concentrating particularly on her modelling. After a whistle-stop tour through her tough earlier years - a strict, religious upbringing; vague suggestions that her father sexually abused her; early marriage to and divorce from an abusive husband; a gang rape - this good-natured Southern belle falls on her feet when she agrees to pose for a snap for an amateur photographer while on Coney Island. Before long, Bettie is a star, posing for famous photographers like Bunny Yeager (Paulson), pioneering fetish photographer John Willie (Harris) and half-siblings Irving and Paula Klaw (Bauer, Taylor) who had a mail-order specialty photography business.
Harron, who co-wrote the script with Guinevere Turner ('Go Fish'), portrays Bettie as she probably was; a sweet, somewhat naïve, Southern girl who innocently tells John Willie (while doing a bondage photoshoot) she hopes: "that if he [Jesus] is unhappy with what I'm doing, he'll let me know somehow." Harron documents what happened, rather than moralising but, despite Bettie's eventful life, there's no real story arc here. She remains a cipher, untouched and untainted by everything that happens. Given how happily Bettie accepts her lifestyle, dismissing the photos as just "silly pictures", her eventual moral qualms seem unjustified.
Looking stunning, Gretchen Mol does a startlingly good job as Bettie, lovingly depicting this small town girl with acting ambitions as she turns into a model who was more photographed than Marilyn Monroe. For her performance, and for Harron's skill at depicting the 1950s - integrating stock footage of the era into a black and white world, with a few colour-saturated scenes and images - 'The Notorious Bettie Page' is worth seeing, even though the story remains curiously unsatisfying.