In real life, iconic '50s pin-up girl Bettie Page gave acting the old college try with none other than legendary acting teacher Herbert Berghof. As conjured by co-writer/director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) and star Gretchen Mol, Page plays scenes from George Bernard Shaw's The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. The allusion is apt: like Shakespeare's muse, Page sure as h-e-double-hockey-sticks had the certain something to captivate a man, and her impact on American erotica continues to be felt today.
An HBO Film promoted to a theatrical release, The Notorious Bettie Page sets the stage but feels narratively underformed, like an out-of-town try-out. Harron succeeds on sheer filmmaking skill and force-of-will, immersing herself in '50s style (the essentials? "Clothes, pose, and expression," or so Bettie is told). Harron employs black-and-white photography, and brief color passages, so expertly as seamlessly to integrate stock footage of the era.
The screenplay, by Harron and Guinevere Turner, speedily establishes how southern belle (and confused Christian) Page was repeatedly burned by men, making her eventual sexual notoriety all the more ironic (as one gobsmacked boyfriend says, "Doctors write books about this sort of thing"). Naïvely hopeful, Page forges onward, looking for the right man and the right vocation. She stumbles into a career as a pin-up model, eventually posing in increasingly risqué situations. Her nude and bondage shots—branded "smut," "evil," "insidious filth"—get her subpoenaed by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn).
Harron presents Page—at times to the point of frustration—as an enigmatic innocent simply at odds with two polar forces: genuine perversion and sexual repression. If The Notorious Bettie Page is more clever than insightful, Harron makes the most of that humorously earnest style ripped from the pin-up pages (dig the recreations of photographer Bunny Yeager's jungle mock-ups and Bettie's infamous "Clown Dance"). In a fine performance, Mol believably represents the kitschy pursuits and born-again faith of the raven-haired beauty—it's only a shame that Turner and Harron leave unturned so many of the painful stones in Page's life.