The Gal Next Door

Bettie Page — the name might ring a bell, but if not, you’d probably recognize the bikini-clad, raven-haired beauty with kinky bangs who was once adored by servicemen and teenage boys alike. The delightful biopic “The Notorious Bettie Page” tells a story of how Page, a proper Southern Christian girl, unwittingly became the star of the rollicking 1950s pin-up world. Biopics have lately been littering the cineplexes, but “Page,” like the woman herself, has the perfect balance of camp and sincerity.

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Bring Nipple Clamps: Gretchen Mol donned lingerie and a black wig to play the vampy, bang-sporting Bettie Page.

It wouldn’t be a biopic if there was not a sad story behind the titular character. Poor Page (Gretchen Mol) had her share of pain, but thankfully the film avoids the cliches of many biopics by only hinting at the travails of her past. Like many in the sex industry, Page was molested as a child. Her father, her first husband and other men had all abused the too-trusting girl by her early 20s. But the heavy subject matter is handled respectfully — like a 1950s melodrama, the film never gets too graphic.

Director Mary Harron is the woman behind “American Psycho” and “I Shot Andy Warhol,” in which she moodily captured different time periods. “Psycho” featured a 1980s yuppie New York and “Warhol” exposed the Factory culture of the 1960s. “Page” is no different — visually and musically it is a gorgeous throwback to the years of Eisenhower, drive-in movies and curvaceous sex symbols. The film follows Page (who was discovered on a beach by a photographer) from her hometown in Tennessee to New York, where she pursued acting, and finally to Miami, where she modeled. Almost the entire film is shot in noir-ish black and white, with the exception of the Miami scenes, where Harron captured exquisite pastels in 1950s Technicolor.

Oh yeah, “Page” also features a lot of frolicking, scantily clad women. No film about a pin-up girl (known for posing in raucous S&M gear) would be complete without its share of sexy photo shoots. Harron isn’t afraid to explore sexual proclivities, and it’s a relief to see a tale of glamorous burlesque from the point of view of a woman. The film also points out the ridiculousness of what titillates men. When Page is asked to pose in super-high heels or leather boots while she whips other models, her photographer (Lili Taylor) asks, “What is it about these things that turns men on?” But what’s more ironic is that the triple-X images from Page’s time are quite tame compared to today’s average MTV music video. The most hilarious scenes are the recreations of the cheesy S&M films such as “Sally’s Punishment,” where Page (who was not a very good actress) lightly taps the backsides of her “victims” with a whip.

The contrast of innocence in a pornographic world is what made Page capitvating. Mol plays the sex icon with such a wholesome vulnerability that there is nothing perverse in her sexual exploits. She nails Page’s girl-next-door-with-a-ball-gag-in-her-mouth image as well as her muse’s vibrancy in front of the camera. Page never stopped believing she was a good Christian, even when she posed in the nude. As she put it, in her pert Southern accent, “Adam and Eve didn’t put on clothes until after they sinned.” And although she made a living at exposing her flesh, Page drank orange juice, not martinis, and stayed in monogamous relationships.

Page wasn’t a sharp wit, but the film never looks down on her; instead it embraces her naive nature. When one photographer asked how she felt about making dirty films, she replied, “Oh, I enjoy acting very much.”

It’s ironic that such a sweet thing as Page would set off a firestorm, yet Page’s photos with whips and chains launched a U.S. Senate investigation into pornography. David Strathairn shows up as Sen. Estes Kefauver — a lawmaker hell-bent on demonizing pornographers. It is clear that Harron is trying to draw parallels from the conservative politicians of the ’50s era to some of today’s righteous policymakers, but as a message film, “Page” is weak. Its originality is as a biopic about a simple girl who didn’t cure cancer, or write really good country music. She just took her clothes off, with a little charm.