Thursday, May 25, 2006

OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Posted on Thu, May 25, 2006 at 4:00 AM

****
The Notorious Bettie Page
Length: Single
Studio: Picturehouse
Rated: R
Website: http://www.thenotoriousbettiepage.com/
Release Date: 2006-04-14
Cast: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, David Strathairn, Jonathan M. Woodward, Cara Seymour
Director: Mary Harron
Screenwriter: Guinevere Turner, Mary Harron
WorkNameSort: Notorious Bettie Page, The
Our Rating: 4.00

And here I was certain Bettie Page had to be strapping. Casting delicate little Gretchen Mol as the lead in the cheesecake-era biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, I assumed, must have been a grave error: If Bettie isn't physically imposing, doesn't the whole dominance/submission dynamic of her pin-up oeuvre crumple like a house of cards ' or at the very least wander dangerously into the unsavory?

The movie, though, manages to choreograph its photo-shoot centerpieces in a way that de-emphasizes the physical disconnect, posing and photographing Mol to make her appear the utmost in Amazonian poise. Even better, the actress totally embodies the second attribute that made Bettie a standout in her field: the lighthearted and inviting sense of play that emanated from her eyes and straight into the camera. In interviews, director Mary Harron (American Psycho) has identified that quality as evidence of Bettie's essential sweetness and lack of guile, but even Harron may not grasp what it says about the sad and lonely men who were Bettie's core constituency. Then as now, they're after the illusion not of domination but acceptance ' scouring a model's face for any sign that, Yes, this one might really like me. Please, let her like me.

Mol's emotional openness provides an invaluable through line as the movie teaches by suggestion, having us connect the dots to determine how a simple, good-hearted gal could go from the church pews of Tennessee to starring on T-shirts at Hot Topic. In stark, almost perfunctory vignettes, we see Bettie weather a busted marriage and a traumatic sexual assault, ultimately making her way to New York City to find herself. An acting class supplies the deepest personal challenge, but her real, immediate success is as a photo model ' a career that's launched when a black cop on a beach convinces her to pose for a few glamour shots. 'Oh, what's the harm in it?â?� she reckons, forming something of a personal credo that will follow her on her unforeseen path to notoriety. Getting her feet wet performing living-room modeling sessions for the male members of seedy 'camera clubs,â?� she finds she has no qualms about doffing her clothes to elicit just the right shot. From there, she winds up starring in fetishistic pictorials and stag films produced by brother-and-sister smut peddlers Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, respectively).

This idea of no harm being done is both the movie's philosophical heart and the source of its richest comedy. The Klaws toss around the word 'artisticâ?� like a self-elevating mantra, even as they're feeding an underground market that thrives on titles like 'Fearful Ordeal in Restraint Land.â?� The actual proto-S&M photos and films, though, are so clumsily staged as to be endearing, and thus wholly benign. Who could feel threatened by an epidemic of quaint restraint? Estes Kefauver, for one, who presides over a congressional probe that may land the Klaws in hot water and make Bettie a pariah to everyone but her legions of fans. (David Strathairn plays Kefauver; wonder if Mr. Good Night, and Good Luck found it more fun playing for the other team?)

Harron has a great eye for the era, shooting in black-and-white to establish a playful atmosphere of under-the-counter skullduggery and periodically breaking into dazzling color to underscore the glitz of Bettie's repeated trips to Miami Beach (where she poses for model-turned-photographer Bunny Yeager). What our heroine is thinking on those trips, though, remains as much of a mystery as most of her motivation throughout the film. The movie pieces together a basic portrait of a nice girl who had some trouble with men but retained the ability to trust; still, we'd like a clearer picture of how she actually regarded her 'work,â?� especially in light of her eventual return to Christianity. At various times, the movie suggests that Bettie came to rue her nude shots but not the bondage stuff, or that she embraced all of it by pronouncing nudity a natural and divine condition. Which was it? The most viable blanket answer is the defense she mounts when a boyfriend discovers evidence of one of her more hard core'oriented shoots: 'We're laughin' all the time doin' this stuff,â?� she swears. Who in her right mind wouldn't?

(Opens Friday, May 26, at Enzian Theater, 407-629-0054)

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