Wes Craven’s debut film The Last House on the Left (1972) was slapped with the “notorious” label for reasons that are glaringly apparent if you just watch the film. This notoriety, spurred on by critics losing their minds over the horrific violence of the film, only made people want to watch it more. Deep Throat (also 1972) and it’s star Linda Lovelace similarly stunned the staid masses in the 1970s, and in doing so drove demand for the film through the roof. The film that took pornography mainstream, Deep Throat became a cultural touchstone—of course there was porn before it, but porn after it would never be seen in quite the same way.
The ever-popular pinup girls seem mild in comparison to the horrors and hardcore action in the movies mentioned above, yet the “Queen of the Pinups” herself, Bettie Page, was immortalized as notorious in the best way possible with Mary Harron’s 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page. I watched it again recently, for the first time in fifteen years, and was struck by just how lovely Gretchen Mol is as Bettie, and how subversively the film played off the “notorious” label in the title – Bettie was a doll, a sweet and easy going woman with a flair for cheeky humor who also happened to be jaw-droppingly sexy. This combination is also known as my kryptonite.
Mol conveys Bettie’s sweetness in nearly every frame, whether in the early scenes as a student before fame, or at various kinky bondage photoshoots. Harron also has a hoot with these scenes, portraying these shoots as family affairs, between Bettie and the other models, brother and sister entrepreneurs Paula and Irving Klaw (portrayed delightfully by two stellar actors, Lily Taylor and Chris Bauer), and the fetish photographer John Willie (a riotously funny Jarred Harris). There’s nothing notorious about any of it. In fact it winds up feeling like any other job, filled with the mundane aspects of doing the work, like setting up shots, and the laughs shared by overworked coworkers who’ve spent too much time together.
Certainly, Page cut a scandalous figure in her heyday, but when you really drill down to the core of what she was doing, her warmth and good humor shine through brilliantly in most of her most famous photos and videos. Mol conveys all of this charm masterfully in a performance that has been largely ignored over the years, which is a crying shame (I believe she only received one award nomination, from the Saturn Awards). In true biopic fashion, she carries the film on her own, as the titular heroine and our point of view as we journey through the wild world of fetishism. When the Klaws and Bettie are called in to testify at a 1955 Senate hearing on the effects of pornography on America’s youth, we feel for their plight – they were having fun, and ultimately who did it hurt? Did Bettie’s notorious bondage work cause actual harm to anyone who enjoyed it? Or did it just rile up the moral majority, a crowd who will find any excuse to wield “morality” as a weapon against what they don’t understand or fear. I’ll also wager a guess that many of those Senators were fans of Bettie’s work.
Mol’s performance has stuck with me these last few weeks, during this exhausting and increasingly stressful time we’re all living in, thanks to the global health crisis that is COVID-19. It was comforting to transport back to a time when a woman like Bettie Page could enthrall a nation, stir the morality police into a frenzy, and all while winking and nodding at her notoriety at every turn. What’s notorious to one person is provocative and intriguing to another, be it horror, fetishism, porn, or [insert other inappropriate pop culture here]. It’s also comical now to see people in an uproar over a “notorious” woman when you consider the very real treat of the virus we’re all facing today. Basically, what I’m rambling about here, in a very unfocused way, is that we need more Bettie Pages in this world – people who bring joy and smiles to those of us who prefer to take life a little less seriously. And these days, it’s a struggle to see the fun or humor in anything, certainly, so it seems we need Bettie now more than ever.
Happy (heavenly) birthday, Bettie Page.