In "The Notorious Bettie Page," Mary Harron's biopic of the titular 1950s pinup queen, Gretchen Mol plays a sweet Christian Southern gal whose photos and films have become icons of that era. Whether posing nude, as a jungle empress or even bound and gagged, Bettie Page brought an entirely new attitude to sexuality. She made it seem — well, natural.
Bettie (sometimes spelled "Betty") Page had dreams of becoming an actress, but partially because of her pronounced and unshakable Southern accent, mainstream Hollywood success eluded her. Modeling, however, was another story. "Discovered" by an amateur photographer, Bettie quickly became a pinup superstar, and what started as simple cheesecake imagery soon evolved into more risqué shoots involving light bondage and fetish lingerie.
What made Bettie stand out from the other pinups of her time was that she seemed completely approachable, even sweet. Her smile was warm and inviting, even when she was holding a whip and teetering on six-inch heels.
The photos led to a number of nudie and bondage films with names like "Teaserama" and "Varietease." Bear in mind that there was never any overt sex in these films, and their burlesque-style dancing (considered so scandalous 50 years ago) is tame compared to the incongruous bumping and grinding on display in "sexy" radial tire ads today.
But a Senate investigation into pornography, coupled with Bettie's increasing devotion to God, led to her retirement in 1957. And that was the last anyone heard of Bettie Page ... for a while.
In the 1980s, the cult of Bettie began to surface. As the rebelliousness of 1950s style and music begat a retro subculture during the Reagan years, artists and hipsters rediscovered this mysterious beauty. In 1982, cartoonist Dave Stevens began a series called "The Rocketeer," about a 1930s stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who discovers a rocket pack that he then uses to help him battle the forces of evil. In the comic, Cliff has a girlfriend named Betty, a saucy pinup model who bears more than a passing resemblance to Bettie Page. In fact, she looks exactly like her.
Stevens is generally credited with bringing Bettie into the mainstream, but when "The Rocketeer" was made into a movie in 1991, "Betty" was toned down a bit, turned into "Jenny," now a struggling Hollywood actress. At least they cast the part right. Jennifer Connelly, in addition to resembling Bettie, perfectly captured her combination of sweetness and sensuality — the girl next door, but almost too beautiful to be real.
As Bettie's legend grew, so did questions about her fate. Ironically, as a cottage industry of Bettie merchandise, artwork by Olivia de Berardinis and tribute sites propagated — and as new pin-up queens like Dita Von Teese, Bernie Dexter and Heidi Van Horne flourished — the real Bettie had no idea, in large part because she was institutionalized for a time, following an assault on her landlady during a massive bout of depression. When she emerged in 1994, Bettie discovered that she had become more famous than ever (Uma Thurman's black wig in "Pulp Fiction" that year was no doubt inspired by Bettie's famous black bangs).
Rumors of a movie about Bettie's life have been circulating Hollywood for more than a decade. At various times, Liv Tyler, Charlize Theron, Rose McGowan and Hilary Swank were mentioned as contenders for the role.
In 1998, Christa Campbell played Bettie (without dialogue) in dramatized scenes for "The E! True Hollywood Story: Bettie Page: From Pinup to Sex Queen," bringing the "Dark Marilyn" further into the mainstream.
The straight-to-video "Bettie Page: Dark Angel" (2004), directed by Nico B., stars Paige Richards in a film that ostensibly chronicles the tail end of Bettie's career. Melodramatic, stiffly acted scenes of a frustrated Bettie quitting the biz are only half the story. The rest of the movie comprises painstaking recreations of some of Bettie's short striptease and bondage films. In some ways akin to Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of "Psycho," "Dark Angel" comes across as more of an exercise in sycophantism than a genuine film.
Bettie's greatest legacy is that she made sexuality feel natural, even when it strayed outside of the mainstream. She was comfortable with herself, even if she didn't wholly embrace all of her subject matter. Fifty-year-old photos of Bettie seem fresh and modern because of her ease. By embracing her own sexuality with grace, Bettie Page became not only a sexual icon but a feminist one, as well.
Whether or not "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a hit, it's one more step toward Bettie taking her rightful place in the pop culture pantheon alongside James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as a true '50s icon.
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