Gretchen Mol is splendid to behold in every stage of dress or undress.Todd McCarthy, Variety
As an actor, how do you play one of the world’s great icons and do it even the tiniest bit of justice? This is a question Gretchen Mol must’ve wrestled with when she took on the monumental challenge of playing Bettie Page in Mary Harron’s biopic The Notorious Bettie Page (2005).
Whether or not it’s an entirely accurate depiction of Bettie’s pinup career (there are arguments to be made on both sides), I am a fan of the film—it’s one of the first I ever discussed at the Starfire Lounge—and that’s largely because of Mol’s sympathetic, thoughtful, and utterly endearing lead performance. She’s mesmerizing, just like the very real woman she’s attempting to bring to life onscreen. In a movie about Bettie Page, you know the lead actress will need to carry every frame on strength of performance, and Mol does this exquisitely.
In particular, Gretchen Mol captures that magical quality Bettie brought to her modeling. Whether stripping or being tied and gagged, Mol channels Bettie’s charisma in pose after pose. Her facial expressions are also on point, expertly recreating Bettie’s playful winks and sexy smiles. She plays Bettie as sweet, easy going, and accommodating, traits often mentioned by Bettie’s colleagues from her camera club days. When called upon to exhibit Bettie’s mischievous side during role playing photoshoots, Mol nails that too.
Beyond the technical excellence of the performance, Mol’s work in The Notorious Bettie Page also serves as a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman. Some may have wanted more out of the film, for Harron to dig even deeper into analyses of the erotic 1950s subculture that Bettie called home during her pinup career, but few could argue against Mol’s sweet, sexy, and assured performance. She’s radiant, exuding Bettie’s trademark warmth, kindness, and playfulness. Ultimately, it’s a respectful performance that honors Bettie. Brava, Ms. Mol.
Don’t just take my word for it; critics overwhelmingly agreed that Gretchen Mol was sensational. Here’s a small sampling of praise:
“Ms. Mol takes to this tricky role with the carefree expressivity you tend to see only in young children who have learned the joys of nudity, usually when their parents are throwing a dinner party. When she strips, Bettie soars.” — Manohla Dargis, New York Times
“[The film] floats on the charm and the labors of its lead actress, Gretchen Mol, who single-handedly makes the picture worth seeing . . . Perhaps through intuition or through some careful study of Page’s pinups, Mol has discovered a human being to play, and in the process has found her best screen showcase to date.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Harron] needed just the right actress to play Bettie. And she lucked out big time. Gretchen Mol is hot stuff in every sense of the term. She delivers the first performance by an actress this year that deserves serious Oscar consideration.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone