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  • Benjamin May

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) Review

Bettie Page is a young brunette bombshell from Nashville, Tennessee. Life in her home state was far from pleasant, so the infectiously optimistic Page moved to New York City with hopes of making it as an actress. While at Coney Island one day, an amateur photographer spies Page’s good looks and natural style, and asks if he can take a few photographs of her. This starts a new chapter in Page’s life, as she becomes a sought-after model and pin-up star. Will Page be able to sustain her celebrity, or will she burn out, or- perhaps worse- fade away?

Directed by Mary Harron, ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’ is a touching comic-drama retelling the life of a fascinating real-world icon. Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, the narrative is surprisingly wholesome and light-hearted- considering Page’s profession- though also wildly enjoyable. While one who wanted to know the psychological reasons behind Page’s willingness to appear topless despite her religious inclinations might be left a little cold by proceedings, the film still entertains greatly.

Page is portrayed as a sweet beacon of light and hope, who is instantly likable. Charming, slightly naïve but by no means unintelligent, the audience roots for her throughout her journey within the pin-up world. This is not to say that Harron and Turner’s characterization is especially rich, however, as- on paper- both Page and her supporting characters are all a little one-dimensional. Further, their handling of themes- such as the gulf between conservatism and liberalism, the rise and fall of fame and the power and influence of media- feel undeveloped and a tad hackneyed.

However, Page- as presented in the film- is someone you couldn’t help for fall for, while Harron and Turner’s dialogue is generally strong- not to mention comedically sharp. Their wry approach to comedy works wonders: they craft an understated, funny story as well as a compelling one. While slightly lacking in psychological or thematic depth and characterisation, their narrative impresses all the same.

Moreover, Mott Hupfel’s cinematography is evocative and atmospheric. He switches between black and white and colour, depending on the tone and context of the scene, in a way that creates a striking visual contrast between Page’s vibrant personality and the repressive society around her, as well as between her private and public life. Furthermore, he utilises a variety of techniques and shots- including close-ups, wides, static and tracking shots- to create tension. In addition, his use of lighting creates atmosphere, compounding the drama and suspense of scenes; most notably when Page testifies before the Senate.

Additionally, Gideon Ponte’s production design faithfully creates a 1950’s visual aesthetic, bolstering the realism of the venture. From the inclusion of vintage cars to elaborate items of clothing created by John Dunn, everything on screen looks period accurate. Alexandra Mazur’s set decoration really is impressive, while Thomas Ambrose’s art direction uses a retro colour palette, with muted tones, evoking a warm feeling of nostalgia.

Gretchen Mol stars as Bettie Page, delivering a confident performance of wit and energy. She makes Page exceedingly amiable; someone anybody would like to spend time with. Yet she also imbues the character with a thoughtful depth missing from Harron and Turner’s screenplay; making her fascinating and multifaceted. Alongside her, Chris Bauer and Lili Palmer do typically fine work as a brother and sister team of magazine peddlers who take Page under their wing, while Sarah Paulson and Jared Harris impress as photographers Bunny Yeager and John Willie, respectively.

In conclusion, Mary Harron’s ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’ celebrates the life and legacy of a woman who defied conventions and expectations, though isn’t as insightful as perhaps it could have been. Despite lacking in thematic and psychological depth, though, the film is a delight, featuring strong dialogue, stunning visuals and a spirited central performance from Gretchen Mol. Uproarious, glorious- this film proves Bettie was more than just notorious.


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