As the eponymous fifties bondage queen in Mary Harron’s blithe biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, Gretchen Mol has a wonderfully healthy glow. Early in the movie, when a photographer asks Bettie if she’d be willing to remove her top, she’s only taken aback for an instant. Then she shrugs, “What’s the harm?” and, with a mischievous half-grin that signals “just this once,” confidently bares her boobs. That’s when Bettie Page blooms. When she models in front of a posse of photographers in a private home, someone yells, “Show us yer keister!” and that naughty grin comes back. She pivots, plants her rump in the air, and elicits a collective murmur of approval. The clicking of cameras sounds like happy animals munching, but the mood isn’t predatory. It’s Bettie who’s eating it up.
For the first part of the film, Bettie’s body gives her little pleasure. Harron and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, depict the pubescent girl’s grim-faced march up the stairs with her father after church. Her marriage to a high-school football star (Norman Reedus) ends in abuse. A well-scrubbed, aw-shucks bumpkin stops her on the street and asks her to a dance; and what happens next, in a dark building on the outskirts of town, is bearable only because Harron cuts away from it. When Bettie becomes a girlie-mag sensation and moves on to vinyl boots and then whips, ropes, and mouth-balls, all traces of serious perversion waft away. She’s just doin’ what comes natur’lly.
Who will be more outraged by The Notorious Bettie Page: the radical right or women troubled by the total separation of bondage and male aggression? Probably the latter, if only because the film is unlikely to pop up on Bible Belt screens. But if Harron is being cheeky in celebrating S&M role-playing as clean-dirty fun, she’s not alone in revering America’s most famous bondage model. From my limited (but curious) vantage, just as many women as men are Bettie Page devotees, regarding her spreads as both sexy and quaint. They respond to her innocent delight and to the palpable lack of threat in how she’s displayed—as well as to the plush curves that went out with the advent of Twiggy.
By no means is The Notorious Bettie Page a pinup anthem. Its tone is semi-parodic, with lurid black-and-white cinematography and brassy, tongue-in-cheek music. But Harron stops well short of camp. There’s a hint that Bettie goes in for stylized S&M because of how she was sexually damaged: She bombs in Method-acting classes; she seems incapable of doing all that psychological plumbing. She’d rather be a clown, doffing her clothes, pulling saucy faces, and wagging her finger as she mock-disciplines other trussed-up models.
This nudie-cutie world has a comfy, surrogate-family aspect to it, with women literally calling many of the shots. It’s the photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) who captures Betty’s aura, and the spunky mother hen Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) who ensures that she’s treated with respect. The only wink-wink touch is the casting of David Strathairn as crusading senator Estes Kefauver, whose obscenity inquiry brackets the movie. It’s unnerving to hear the sonorous tones that only recently made the case for free expression in Good Night, and Good Luck decry the decay of American morals.
It’s long past time for the Gretchen Mol backlash backlash—eight years after Vanity Fair editors were said to have been conned by publicists into putting her on their illustrious cover. What a delicious comeback! With her blue-black hair, Mol looks so much like Page that this could be a documentary, and her swings between modesty and exhibitionism are amazingly fluid. When Bettie finds religion, it’s not a shamefaced rejection of her past; it’s just another stage in her evolution. Harron has her preaching the gospel in a park—still a creature of nature. Mol does a charming dance over the credits that’s so free-spirited, the angels wouldn’t know whether to sing or whistle.
On the train back from burying her father, Meryl (Justine Clarke), the tousled protagonist of Sarah Watt’s deliriously inventive Look Both Ways, envisions a devastating crash, a tidal wave that swallows her up, sharks that rip her limb from limb, and sundry other worst-case scenarios. Meryl’s fantasies take the form of headlong animations, much like the breathtaking shorts that Watt has been making in Australia for the last fifteen years. Her alter ego, Meryl, is queerly placid on the surface but possessed by the impulse to splash her roiling insides all over the canvas. When she meets a photojournalist (William McInnes) who tells her he sees death everywhere, too, she thinks she has found a steady thing—a soul mate. She doesn’t know what we do: that he has just gotten the news he has cancer.
In her debut feature, Watt overreaches. She attempts to craft an ensemble piece along the lines of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, complete with soulful rock songs meant to tie together disparate characters as they confront the sudden perception of mortality. The scaffolding shows, and none of the subplots are as vivid as the central romance. But that love story is enough to put the movie over, especially when Watt alternately depicts the couple’s dueling montages of disaster—the painter’s with expressionistic whooshes of color, the photographer’s with hyperrealistic cancer cells breaking off and embarking on their journey into the bloodstream. Even when it spreads itself too thin, Look Both Ways enlarges your perception of the here-and-now—and what movies can do to transcend it.
I’m continually astonished by the level of wit, craftsmanship, and narrative cunning that goes into your basic crap thriller. Consider Lucky Number Slevin, with its lickety-split banter, shocking violence, and artfully disorienting story line. The pretzeled syntax is fun for a while. But as the holes are filled in, the film stands revealed as just another vacuous revenge picture. It shrinks your perception of what movies can do.
The Notorious Bettie Page
Directed by Mary Hrron. Pcturehouse. R.
Look Both Ways
Directed by Sarah watt. Kino International. PG-13.
Lucky Number Slevin
Directed by Paul McGuigan. MGM. R.