I popped The Notorious Bettie Page into my DVD player without knowing anything about its plot or cast. I didn't even know enough to recognize the title of this HBO film: Bettie Page was an iconic model of the Fifties. This film is the story of her life from ages 12 to 34.
Not knowing what to expect, I was heartened by an opening scene featuring David Strathairn, who continues to represent the decade he symbolized in Good Night, and Good Luck. In Bettie Page, he chairs that era's Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency, perhaps best known infamously demonizing comic books. Given my familiarity with this subject, I was disappointed that this investigation is the story's frame, not its focus.
From this point, the plot backtracks to Bettie's youth in Tennessee. Having not consulted her other biographies, I can't confirm that the baseness she encountered at this time was actual. But unlike in Veronica Mars, where I found such social ailments unnecessary, here they're undeniably real and cruel elements of society. I'm not for glossing over reality, especially when it's essential to understanding the character of Bettie Page.
Once she escapes this origin, though, her story becomes almost a non-story, and the character becomes far more fascinating than the circumstances of her "descent" from beauty pageants to photo shoots to pin-ups to bondage and fetish pictures. Ironically, it is in this world, not the one "civilized" people inhabit, where Bettie escapes her past and is safest, surrounded by trustworthy individuals who appreciate the unique talent it has taken her so long to discover. A word of warning to the prudish: though topless photos were acceptable in her line of work, the film occasionally depicts full frontal nudity. The few videos she appeared in are rather tame and silly by today's standards. (An authentic Bettie Page video is included among the DVD's bonus features.) Most of The Notorious Bettie Page is black-and-white, except for a few scenes and montages. (Interestingly, all the scenes set in Miami are in color; those in New York City are not.)
Her career and story raise superficial yet potentially engaging questions about such an illicit industry. Is the sin (as Bettie considers her line of work, despite her uninhibited joy for it) in the people who supply such photos, or in the consumer who demands such? Which party engenders the other? Is this line of work truly "disgusting", as her boyfriend puts it — or is it all contextual and truly no different, except in people's perception and reaction, from any classical work of art that showcases the human body? Though I in principal will not patronize Hooters, I do enjoy pretty women. Are there degrees of acceptable objectification, or must we be absolute in the purity of our thoughts, repressed and otherwise? Neither these topics nor the Senate hearings are the focus of the film, and the story ends as abruptly as Ms. Page's career upon her conversion to Christianity. Anyone looking for answers or closure will leave this film vaguely unsatisfied.
I honestly don't recall how I came by this film; no one recommended it, and it's not the sort of film I'd normally hear of. I can only guess that it was by reviewing the filmography of Jonathan Woodward, whose work I enjoyed first in Wit and then Josh Whedon's Buffy and Firefly. If he was the lightning rod that attracted me to this film, then his presence was well worth it.