A popular pinup in her day, Bettie Page has grown exponentially more popular since her day passed. Page posed for respectable glamour photographers, fetish specialists, and amateur camera-club enthusiasts alike, shooting them all a smile as unassuming as the girl next door and as enigmatic as a sphinx. Maybe the smile led to her cultural longevity—even when naked, Page always seemed to keep a little of herself for herself. But maybe it's something less enigmatic. In a recent Los Angeles Times piece, Harlan Ellison described Page's beauty as hitting a "golden mean." (But a mean between what two points?) Or maybe the passing of time tangled Page's image into a mixture of sex and nostalgia that suggests even bodies were somehow better in decades past.
The Notorious Bettie Page doesn't answer any of those questions, nor does it really try. Framed by Senate obscenity hearings presided over by the ever-crusading Estes Kefauver (wryly played by David Strathairn, in a near mirror image of his Good Night, And Good Luck role), the film follows Page from life as a salutatorian and unhappy bride in small-town Tennessee to New York, where she found limitless work as a model while training for an acting career that never happened.
Gretchen Mol plays Page, and also resembles her to an uncanny degree. But she sells the performance with more than her appearance. When first asked to put on strange costumes for the S&M photographs that wound up as Congressional evidence, Mol assumes an attitude of surprise free from naïveté, as if she can't figure out why anyone would want to see her in thigh-high boots and a corset, but doesn't have a problem with it either. It seems like the right attitude for Page, the kind that eventually got her in trouble, but helped create a carefree fantasy for a while. Mol nails it, in a performance that should earn her a comeback on a Heath Ledger-like scale.
The film, on the other hand, only really nails the milieu in which Page worked. Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (who previously teamed for the memorable American Psycho) build a matter-of-fact biopic shot largely in black and white, but otherwise delivered in the straightforward house style of HBO, which executive-produced the film. Turner and Harron load Notorious with the details of '50s-shutterbug and nude-modeling culture and surround Mol with a talented supporting cast, but otherwise let Mol's faded smiles and enigmatic glances suggest what's going on inside. Maybe that's appropriate. Even with her life reduced to these conventional terms, Page remains an enigma to the end.