The Not–So–Notorious Mary Harron
By Cynthia Amsden
Once upon a time in the middle of the American south, a young girl sits in church beside her mother and smiles shyly at a boy several rows ahead. Her mother swats her hand in an admonishment of improper behaviour. The daughter, whose skin was as white as snow, lips as red as blood and her hair as black as ebony, might well have been called Snow White but her name was Bettie Page. Bettie is always smiling except when her father calls out, “Bettie, can I see you upstairs,” and then a frown comes over her pretty face. When she comes of age, she skips off to college where she meets a handsome, young man who declares that she is going to be his wife. In the blink of an eye, she is married, and in another blink, her wonderful husband is backhanding her. In a third blink, the husband is sitting in the living room and Bettie, with bags packed, leaves and boards a bus bound for New York. Walking down the night streets of the magical city, she meets another handsome, young man who invites her to a dance, which she accepts with a moment’s thought, then a smile and a flip of her hair. Instead of going to a dance, she is whisked out to the countryside and as money changes hands, and she is turned over to a group of young men with hungry looks on their faces. “It’s my time of month,” she cries out, to which they demand satisfaction for their cash. When they are finished with her, the poor child is all alone in the great forest, and so terrified that she looks at all the leaves on the trees, and does not know what to do. So she does what any girl would do after gang rape—she wipes a single tear from her eye and buttons her pretty sweater and heads back to the city.
All that is missing from The Notorious Bettie Page are the dwarves.
Directed by Toronto–born Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho), who is the daughter of long–time CBC personality Don Harron (a.k.a. Charlie Farquharson), co–written by Harron and writer/actor Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, and the same writing team on American Psycho), The Notorious Bettie Page most significantly stars Gretchen Mol (Donnie Brasco, Celebrity,The Rules of Attraction), and also boasts a cast that includes Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Jonathan M. Woodward, Cara Seymour and Jared Harris.
The Notorious Bettie Page is a charming, but overly precious biopic that covers the life of Page from approximately 1936 to 1957 without any reference to her parents’ poverty, divorce, her years in an orphanage, her abusive father’s arrest and conviction. The film settles into a more detailed account of 1950 to1957, Page’s halcyon years as America’s most famous pinup/bondage model. It ends in a happily–ever–after rediscovery of the Church and makes no mention of Page’s failed second and third marriages, multiple arrests, violent attacks on family and employers, and repeated stays in psychiatric facilities. The production notes for the film characterizes The Notorious Bettie Page as: “… a provocative exploration of sexuality, religion and pop culture as she [Harron] takes us into the 1950s and the fascinating world of famous pin–up girl, Bettie Page.” But in an interview, Harron claims the use of the word “notorious” in the title “was something HBO Films put in there. It wasn’t my idea.”
This is not an atypical response from Harron, who shies away from any claims of analytical or interpretive intent in her work. Admittedly, in the case of the title, the distance between the director’s initial vision and the finished product can often be broadened by the distributor’s need to fuel the sell. It is unclear why a filmmaker picks a scandalous subject and then clips the obvious, but Harron’s original title for the biopic on the 1950’s iconic dark horse—counter–pointing Marilyn Monroe’s girl-nex-door image—was the more noncommittal The Ballad of Bettie Page, suggesting a literal representation of the events of a life which was inadvertently labeled “notorious.”
The film premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival to public screening audiences littered with 20–something Bettie clones. Mixed in with the festival cinéastes were young Goth Betties, vamp Betties (more provocative and less black nail polish), demure Betties and student Betties with a nod to the bangs. These were girls who would have been born in the 1980s, achieving some sort of social consciousness in the 1990s, and cobbling together their own Bettie–come–lately style halfway through the first decade of the new century.
Coincidentally, Harron says that was when she first heard of Bettie Page—specifically, in 1993. Even though Harron had been living in the New York’s East Village in the 1970s, working as a rock journalist, and had written an extensive history of the Velvet Underground (with their legendary song, “Venus in Furs,” inspired by and about sadomasochism) for New Musical Express magazine, she somehow missed any mention of the bondage queen. Harron also founded Punk magazine in 1976, celebrating a movement that embraced a certain ennui about sex, while sporting fashions from London’s Vivien Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, redolent of bondage gear and fetish references, yet still she never came across any mention of Page.
In 1978, the official Bettie Page revival began, ignited by New York’s Belier Press and its widespread reprinting her photos. By the 1980s, the image of Bettie Page was being incorporated into posters for rock bands by artists Frank Frazetta and Olivia De Barardinis. Still, any mention of Bettie Page escaped Harron’s purview. After living in Manhattan, Harron then moved to London where she was a rock critic at The Guardian, and, oddly, continued to be unaware of Page for another 10 years.
Chronology of influences notwithstanding, Harron was drawn in by the allure of Page, just the same everyone else. For others, the attraction was, and still is, the photography, the bondage, even the haircut; however, in Harron’s case it was the sex/religion dichotomy. The creative key, for her, is always context. This was a 1950s story—a troubled southern girl is dropped into post–war New York, McCarthyism and Playboy in its nascent stages. That’s pure gold for a filmmaker who has demonstrated tremendous ability in recreating eras. She did the 1960s in I Shot Andy Warhol and the 1980s in American Psycho, albeit not with a sprawling budget, but with cultural touchstones such as wardrobe, hair, makeup and cinematography, which cause potent bursts of nostalgia in the viewer’s head. To that end, the next feature she plans to shoot, Please Kill Me, is based on Legs McNeil’s book, The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and is set in the 1970s.
Beyond the praiseworthy production values, Harron focuses on the decade of a story because she believes “the year a woman is born influences her life.” Her exploration of a life stopsthere because her style of filmmaking “goes against the grain of causality and psychological narrative.” For Bettie Page, the year of her birth was 1923, in Tennessee, making her 27 years old when she arrived in New York and met Jerry Tibbs, the photographer who gave her the legendary haircut and introduced her to the world of pinup photography. By 1955, the same year the tranquilizer Miltown became a staple for American women, Page posed as a centerfold for Playboy magazine and was known as “Pinup Girl of the World.” That was also the year Tennessee Senator, Estes Kefauver, launched a campaign against pornography and Page was called to appear in front of a subcommittee hearing. By 1957, she ended her career and retreated into obscurity, which is where the film stops.
Harron explained, “I am drawn to contradictory biographies.” That said, Harron did not wish to explore the contradictions, just present them. “Why not stick as close as possible to real life? Just have it just happen in the way a real life unfolds—just a sequence of events. A lot of people argue saying that’s not dramatic enough, but it’s what I wanted to do.” She describes Page’s celebrity as accidental, the product of “a girl drifting through life, not internally driven. In the exotic worlds I have passed through, there has always been a banal element to it. I was there, on the inside, in the middle of fearsome and debauched people, and they were sitting around watching television and drinking tea. With Bettie, it was the same in the Klaw Studios when she was shooting the bondage photos. They were not done in the atmosphere of intense eroticism. It was just dress up, just a job.”
Indeed, it appears to be just that—a life presented as a glossy travelogue with events passing by with no more gravitas than traffic lights changing at an intersection. Harron delivered on her intention of neutrality. “I want audiences to decide about Bettie. I don’t want to do it for them.”
Case in point: I Shot Andy Warhol, a film which Roger Ebert praised as a tour “inside the mind of a woman who was deranged and possibly schizophrenic, and follow[ing] the logic of her situation as she sees it, until her act is revealed as the inevitable result of what went before.” When presented with Ebert’s review, Harron demurred, “I only intended to show the events of Valerie Solanas’s life, nothing more.”
Case in point: Harron targeted controversy for her second feature, and what could possibly be more controversial than a pregnant, female director at the helm of American Psycho, filmed in Toronto. She expressed bafflement when she had to live down the reputation of the book that Simon & Schuster, the original publishers, dropped, reportedly almost destroying the author’s career. The production itself incited widespread protest because of the proximity of the Bernardo/Homolka killings and the much–reported fact that Paul Bernardo had American Psycho as his nighttime reading during his murder spree.
In an interview in Manhattan just prior to the release of the American Psycho, Harron at first claimed she paid no attention to the protests, and then later asserted that she didn’t understand the public’s problem, claiming that, "His [Bernardo’s] crimes predated the publication of the book. He murdered that young girl [Leslie Mahaffy] before the book came out.” This was a case of self–serving revisionist history because Random House Canada reported invoicing stores for American Psycho as early as February 1991. Bernardo is quoted as saying he bought the book in April of that year. He killed Mahaffy in June.
Regarding the film itself, Harron said to The Guardian, “My film is upsetting because it doesn’t offer that kind of resolution. With Hollywood films, people want to be told that the good will win out.” Again Harron provokes from the middle of the middle ground. With The Notorious Bettie Page, the director declares, “The thing that set Bettie part from other pinups was her vitality. She loved what she was doing. It shows in her work. Her smile is not artificial or posed. There is something in her spirit that contradicts the nature of the photos. I think she didn’t have a clue. Bettie was more natural in front of the camera, more herself in front of the camera than in any other time. There is almost a detached quality in her photographs.” Detached from her past? Detached from her present? Was Bettie Paige an Eve in the Garden of Photographic Eden with an apple as a ballgag?
For whatever reason, Harron’s film isolates the photographic portion of Bettie Page’s biography and recreates a life in photos, reanimating them in much the same way that Gus Van Zant did in his frame–by–frame remake of Psycho. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, producers of Academy Award-winning Chicago, have also remade several classic films including Gypsy, The Music Man, Fahrenheit 451, Flowers for Algernon, and Annie. In an interview, they explained their philosophy of remakes—if a film doesn’t stand the test of time, it’s game for a remake. The problem with the Van Zant’s Psycho is that the original wasn’t broken, therefore it didn’t need to be fixed. Similarly, the original Bettie Page photos and films still work, making Van Zant’s and Harron’s films little more than an exercise in cinematography.
Gretchen Mol’s performance is a delight to watch and will undoubtedly be a boost for the actress. In 1998, when she co–starred with Ed Norton and Matt Damon in Rounders, her then–publicist, Leslie Sloan, placed Mol on the cover of Vanity Fair. At the press junket in Los Angeles, journalists commented, “Great performance, nice cover, but who are you?” That same year, she appeared in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, but it was co–star Charlize Theron who walked away with much of the acclaim, leaving Mol again in the shadows. Now, the “Who is Getchen Mol?” question will be answered with The Notorious Bettie Page, which is a damn sight better outcome than what Christian Bale got after he bravely took the lead role in American Psycho (he had been warned it would be “career suicide”). His career languished with second–string roles until he went to Spain and pulled a reverse Charlize Theron (who gained weight for Monster), dropping 63 pounds for the astonishing lead in The Machinist. Mol will likely have an easier go of it.
While I Shot Andy Warhol was Harron’s first effort, it was also the one where she went deepest, even if she denies doing so. With American Psycho, she adapted a book—outrageous for its violence and narcissistic satire— domesticated the sadism and sold the surface as the crux of the irony.
In The Notorious Bettie Page, she has again selected a subject of controversy. Motivated by the sex/religion disparity, she portrays a character more alive in photos and film than in life, resolving any inner turmoil with that ol’ Biblical chestnut: “If it was wrong to be naked, then why did God create people that way?”
Harron says, “I talked to many different people to get a picture of Bettie. As you gather the material, you build a portrait of the story you want to tell. This story is as true as the circumstances.” Circumstances without design, without comprehension, without consequence. The Notorious Bettie Page is a ship with a great and glorious sail, but a very shallow keel.
Also see: Mary Harron’ s filmography.
This article was originally published in Issue 52 of Take One Magazine in December 2006. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One in 2007. Its author, Cynthia Amsden, was a member of Take One’s editorial board.