"The Notorious Bettie Page" is directed by Mary Harron, who gave us "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho," and the big surprise is how tame it is. The "notorious" in that title is strictly tongue-in-cheek.
Bettie Page, played here by Gretchen Mol, was a leading pin-up model of '50s men's magazines. Although she did make it into Playboy at least once - posing with nothing on except Santa's cap - she undraped mostly for sleazier fare like Sunbather and Wink. Her specialty was naughty bondage photos that were sold under the counter and which figured in the Senate Subcommittee's investigations into juvenile delinquency chaired by Tennessee's Sen. Estes Kefauver (played by David Strathairn in the same jaw-clenched mode he used as Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck").
Bettie herself grew up in Tennessee, making her the yin to Kefauver's yang. We first see her as a fresh-scrubbed high school girl and member of the debating team. Raised by a strict churchgoing mother, Bettie is prohibited from dating but marries a local student who turns out to be abusive. She moves out, but one evening in Nashville, in the film's most quietly effective scene, she is lured into a gang rape. Undaunted, Bettie boards a bus for New York to study acting and ends up, in what started as a lark, as a star in the raunchier realms of the modeling biz.
Harron and her coscreenwriter, Guinevere Turner, don't try to "explain" Bettie to us. The usual bio-pic would draw a straight line between her early abuse and her line of work, or between her strict Christian upbringing and her rebellion, but the filmmakers are having none of it. For them, Bettie was first and foremost a bubbly Southern girl who simply dusted off her troubles and plowed ahead. Bettie's cachet is her girl-next-door allure. She's not rebelling against anything. She's a free spirit who likes to make people happy by taking off her clothes. She's Betty Crocker without the apron - or much of anything else.
The film's comic centerpiece is a scene where a pin-up photographer asks her to pose as she mimes a rapid variety of facial expressions: "Give me saucy," he says, and Bettie lights up like a lamp. The bondage scenes with other models, like most of the film shot in black and white, are staged as innocent romps. Her co-workers are folksy eccentrics and include the notorious Harry Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his half-sister, Paula (Lili Taylor), who sell Hollywood stills and run their own "specialty" shop.
Despite the fact that Bettie is a raging success, her lifestyle doesn't seem to change very much. The only real difference is that she keeps getting noticed by men who recognize her from her photos. She still lives like a struggling actress and has a struggling actor boyfriend. When he finally discovers her real profession - what took him so long? - he is made to seem like a fuddy-duddy for being upset.
Harron doesn't point up the fact that Bettie, who is never shown being forced into any compromising positions, was financially exploited by these so-called folksy types. The criminal element in this world is conveniently airbrushed.
Harron has stated that the truth of Bettie's life lies in its unresolvable contradictions: She was a wholesome-as-apple-pie S&M model. But the emphasis in "The Notorious Bettie Page" is almost entirely on the apple pie. There is nothing in the least bit sordid about her circumstances. When she finds religion and quits modeling, she remains the same chipper cheerleader she always was, without a single regret. (Nevertheless, she disappeared for many years without a trace.)
Gretchen Mol is unrelentingly charming in the role and she almost - almost - makes you believe that someone as unclouded as this could actually exist. This film would go well on a double bill with "The Stepford Wives." Grade: B-
• Rated R for nudity, sexual content, and some language.