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September 30, 2006

Bettie Paged Twice

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The Notorious Bettie Page
Mary Harron - 2006
HBO Video Region 1 DVD

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Bettie Page: Dark Angel
Nico B - 2004
Cult Epics Region 1 DVD

When it comes to Bettie Page, the photographs say all I really want to know about her. In terms of knowing the facts of Bettie Page's life, the "E True Hollywood Story" gave enough information about her life as a pinup model, the accusations of pornography by Congress, and Page's retirement to a reclusive life devoted to church work. There are two films about Bettie Page, but neither of them gets it right, although one tries harder than the other.

If there is a reason to see The Notorious Bettie Page, it's for the faces. While Gretchen Mol passingly resembles Page, it's the rest of the cast that is noteworthy simply for how they seem to represent an older era. Setting aside anything else about the film, the faces crammed into the hour and a half are as vivid as those of Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strength of Mary Harron's film is also its weakness, which is to say that The Notorious Bettie Page is so visually beautiful it is like a museum piece with any sense of spontaneity drained out.

Harron and screenplay writer Guenevere Turner seem to have jammed as much about Bettie Page's life as possible within a relatively compact running time, alternating black and white New York City with colorful Miami Beach. Brutal incidences in Page's life before New York are conveyed effectively, especially with scenes in which her trusting nature puts her in dangerous situations. The actors are all quickly vivid, especially David Strathairn as Senator Estes Kefauver and Jared Harris as John Willie. The film also respectfully attempts to grapple with Page's inner conflicts, between her life as a pin-up model and her committed Christian faith. And yet for all the obvious effort, the film is unable to explain the simultaneous naughty but nice attraction that made Page a magnetic personality.

Bettie Page: Dark Angel is an extremely low budget attempt to tell Page's story from the time she was already working for Irving and Paula Klaw, through her retirement following the Senate investigation. The film is mostly recreations of Page's bondage movie shorts, strung together with poorly acted incidences in her life. The sets are a scant step up from the production values seen in Ed Wood, Jr.'s Plan Nine from Outer Space. Bondage and porno star Paige Richards looks vaguely like a more well fed version of Page. If The Notorious Bettie Page looks overpopulated with its lively characters popping all over the screen, Bettie Page: Dark Angel tries to get by with usually no more than four or five people in a given scene.

If you have to see one movie about Bettie Page, see Gretchen Mol's impersonation. For viewing pleasure, you're better off seeing the actual Bettie Page on DVD.

Posted by peter at September 30, 2006 12:19 AM