Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor"/>
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With: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor
Written by: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Directed by: Mary Harron
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexual content and some language
Running Time: 91
Date: 09/14/2005

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Blank Page

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Initially, biopics wish to pay tribute to someone's hero. But eventually they become feats of casting, and the point becomes watching a certain famous actor walk, talk, dress and act like someone else famous.

Oddly, this feat continues to impress critics and viewers over and over again, year after year. A good chunk of the annual Oscar nominations comes from actors playing real people.

One trend that remains relatively undiscussed, however, is the types of performances that win the most accolades. The nobler the person being portrayed, the better the chance the actor has of winning something. Ben Kingsley probably never hesitated to write his victory speech when he was nominated for playing Gandhi (1982).

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar as Ray Charles, who recorded a respectable album with a symphony orchestra, while Joaquin Phoenix lost for playing Johnny Cash, who sang about death and performed in a prison. (Though Reese Witherspoon won for playing the slightly more angelic June Carter.)

In the Best Actress category, actresses who won for playing real people dominate: Sissy Spaceck in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking (1995), Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000) and Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002), just to name a few.

By comparison, Gretchen Mol playing pinup Bettie Page in the new film The Notorious Bettie Page, doesn't really stand a chance. An obscenity-related court case may have been Mol's ticket to Oscar-dom, but the glamour gal was only marginally involved, and nothing really ever came of it.

(Ironically, David Strathairn, recently Oscar nominated for playing a freedom-fighting journalist standing up to witch-hunters, now becomes a witch-hunter himself, playing the leader of a conservative committee designed to eradicate smut.)

According to the film, Page was born in a small town, and raised by strict, God-fearing parents. Because of her astounding, statuesque good looks, she attracted much attention, some unwanted, from the opposite sex.

Before leaving for the big city, she suffered several varieties of sexual abuse as well as a failed marriage. But life in New York quickly led to a career as a pin-up, as well as a steady job starring in a series of "loops," or short films dedicated to various and assorted fetishes (high heeled shoes, whipping, etc.).

She took acting classes and went on auditions for "straight" roles, but little came of it. When the sex industry dried up, she all but disappeared from the public eye.

Now, as envisioned by writer/director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner (a sometime actress and a dead ringer for Page), The Notorious Bettie Page dutifully records these events with fifties-era innocence.

One of the things that fuels biopics is some kind of dependence on drugs (Ray, Walk the Line) or sex (Auto Focus) or some other recurring trouble. But Page stays true to her religious upbringing. Her biggest struggle happens over the course of one scene, her first nude photo shoot; she decides that, perhaps God wanted her to choose this path.

Indeed, the biggest complaint about The Notorious Bettie Page is that it's not notorious enough. Sure, there's a lot of nudity, and though normally that's enough to rile the puritans, in this context, it seems perfectly natural and rather tame.

Mol captures the real Page's inherent effervescence and joy in her own physicality, while retaining that special mystery that made her so appealing. The draw wasn't so much sex or nudity as the mystery behind that smile, that wink and those brunette bangs.

The svelte, blonde Mol has the added advantage of not looking much like the voluptuous Page in her off hours. That, in addition to her currently sagging career (her last major performance was in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things three years ago), gives her more to prove.

She pulls it off. It's a lovely, bold performance; she walks a thin line, daring us to look into her soul while still preserving the Bettie Page legend.

By comparison, a low-budget version of the Bettie Page story, Bettie Page: Dark Angel, was just produced and distributed on DVD by Cult Epics. That film casts real-life bondage model Paige Richards in the lead role.

While Richards knows how to strip, whip and spank with the best of them, she lacks Mol's sparkle, and more importantly, her humility. Of course, these self-same ingredients keep The Notorious Bettie Page from spiraling off into pure exploitation -- some of which it could use.

The truth is that, unlike those noble writers, musicians and historical figures, Page is a lot harder to pin down. Gandhi gets automatic points for starving himself, making speeches and standing up against injustice, but what has Page done for us lately?

Frankly, she was just herself. She glowed with a glorious radiance all her own. Of the dozens of other pinups from her generation, few could stand up to her and certainly none has her timeless appeal.

To attempt to re-create this is a bit of a folly, but The Notorious Bettie Page has a kind of sweetness, and a refreshing lack of haughty nobility, that makes it of interest.

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