Bettie Page Confidential
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Directed by Mary Hannon and starring Gretchen Mol [Bettie Page], this film celebrates the equally despised and distinguished iconic heroine, in part responsible for the advent of modern pornography.
It is a significant problem when a director attempts to chart the life of a relatively lifeless person, or more to the point, attempts to examine the biographical account of an individual’s life who, whilst very good at their trade, never had the imagination to leave their singular sphere of existence – whether that be Iris Murdoch, Alfred Kinsey, Mahatma Gandhi or in this case, Bettie Page. This is not an outlook grounded in my own pomposity, in which I imagine myself to live outside the singular existence of my everyday life – I have not done this, but neither would I want a film made of my life, should I become a notorious model. (This is not going to happen anytime soon). It is possible that given Bettie Page’s life, no film should have been made of it – other than for democratic means of a public record of a cultural icon. In sum, as a work of art, its value lies in its recording of a vital cog in the cultural machine.
However, I suggest this, not to cast the film into eternal damnation but as an issue of where the film begins – in the depths of sexual perversion and sadism. That is where Bettie Page lived. From her childhood in Tennessee through to her posing trips in Miami, she is a cog in the machine, taking the money where she knows she can get it and to deceive herself that her sexual subversion is some kind of acting career. The film frequently slips through scenes of Page’s wanna-be acting career, which never truly takes off.
I therefore think that the director confronted the most significant problem that a film-maker would need to – that Page had a meaningless trashy-porno life in which she existed as a cog in a brutally unforgiving machine of desires. What’s more, the sexually light photographic entertainment of Page skilfully appears as an extension of her earlier experiences of childhood abuse and teenage gang rape. We often like to talk of that good old-fashioned distinction between light-hearted entertainment and tough illegal porn. Yet, the film reminds me – as much as Andrea Dworkin’s texts on modern sexualised legislation do – that this is an irrelevant distinction. To be an “actor” within the industry is essentially to be an automaton in a genuinely brutal industry – the product of which is the abject debasement of the self.
What immediately takes me by surprise in the film is the subtle and respectable portrayal of Page. It shies away from scenes of sexual abuse, leaving the audience with only smatterings and likenesses of an abusive childhood. It is often sensitive to Page’s impressions and feelings of living as a model – in spite of mainstream public controversy – whilst she tirelessly suffers at the mercy of apish and sadistic desires. It is equally respectful of her attitude to religion and how Page came to make sense of her Christian convictions whilst following a sexual career which she is told is antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. As such, Page offers naïve excuses to those who question this conviction – among others, Adam and Eve lived naked in the Garden of Eden, so, it therefore seems correct to infer that those who are clothed are the people we should really be worried about. … An interesting point Page.
Whilst Page’s Tennessee-outlook on theology may prove mildly irritating, it is this naivety, vulnerability, disillusionment and lack of confidence in character that is most humanizing and most humbling. She desperately strives to be an actor, and even assumes her modelling to be a form of acting, to such a degree that the film demands that the audience gently celebrate the failure – the most important of which, for Page, appears to be not meeting the grade for a scholarship to Vanderbilt University. Her overarching vulnerability is not comprehended as financial security in life but rather as the predicament in which she seems completely incognizant of the nineteen fifties mainstream disgust at “sexually deviant” literature whilst simultaneously becoming its most “notorious” icon. Not until a boyfriend addresses this deviancy does this entire plot seem to dawn on her.
With an outstanding performance by Gretchen Mol, coupled with a carefully crafted approach by Hannon, the film subtly details the notorious life of a primitive porno-heroine. Set among the welcoming industry of pornographers, in open conflict with American public opinion and legislation, the film superbly delivers a personal outlook of the modern heroine’s experiences, defining both the degradation and happiness of Page’s life.