Bettie Page, 50s filth and defying expectations

Cheap Thrills programmer Christopher Brown looks at the complicated world of The Notorious Bettie Page, screening on Thursday August 11.

There’s a smiling, although rather melancholic, nostalgia at the heart of Mary Harron’s biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page. The movie focuses on Page, played by Gretchen Mol, during her time as a 50’s model, specialising in fetish photography. Its view is on showing a woman who escapes an abusive world into one that treats her as a goddess.

In real life, director Russ Meyer described her once as “the nicest girl you’d ever want to meet.” In the film, she’s greeted on set for her first shoot with a sandwich and the men that take her picture are either working types just doing a job, or people just amazed at their luck to be in the room at all.

Interestingly some reviews at the time of release in 2006 were critical of the approach. They felt that Page needed to have been more affected by the events of her early life, that her childhood should have more of an impact on her decisions. It’s an opinion that could be construed as a form of ownership of the person herself, an element that Harron is attacking.

notorious bettie page

The film shows Bettie Page as a mysterious bubble of joy, looking pleased with the work and people she is with and baffled by the attention she gains.  The idea that she is “notorious” in the biopic is perhaps a push, the model is more “celebrated”, although that might not have looked as good in the marketing.

At the time she defied expectations by being a pin-up, then she did it again by walking away in 1958 to become a born-again Christian. Right up until her death she remained mysterious, refusing to be photographed stating that she wanted to be remembered how she was in the 50s and saying about her career In a 1998 interview with Playboy. “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”

So the film is sympathetic, intelligent and a little sad that a certain point of time has now gone. Even in the world of smut there could be a time of innocence.

The Notorious Bettie Page screens at Liverpool Small Cinema on Thursday August 11, Doors 7pm, film 7.30pm. £5, 4. Drive-in trailers and vintage burlesque trailers to start. Tickets here