The Notorious Bettie Page is a film about the good old days of porn. You know, when it wasn’t exploitative, and all the girls portrayed within were not only fun loving conspirators in an art project, but believed in Jeebus too. Most film about porn are about the good old days. Inside Deep Throat told us how great things were before video cameras spoiled everything with their readers wives amateurism. Auto Focus gave us the nice world of sixties do-it-yourself and be in it yourself porn. Sure, sleazy guys were always around the scene, but all scenes have their anal trainspotter types, desperate to collect the set of fetish pics. But hey – it was really quite quaint, all of this thrusting after black and white glossies of spiked heels and corsets.
So a quaint, homsey style movie is the surprise package you get with the Notorious Bettie Page. If it is dominated by anything, its how gosh darn nice Bettie is. Which is odd considering the implied child abuse and rape in the opening sequences. But then the flaw at the heart of the project is the flaw that many people carry into battle. If Bettie Page can be seen to be a nice person, the act she is committing, the art she is making, the porn photos she poses for, must also be nice. They cannot be bad because she didn’t have a bad bone in her body.
This is a lousy argument, which the film further undermines by never really getting to the heart of Bettie’s seemingly all-encompassing niceness. Penetrate the film deeply, and there is little there except the much more persuasive argument that if this stuff seems tame now, then our stuff will seem tame for the future. But that is hardly an argument FOR pornography. And with the full frontal nudity and vagina shots, no matter how tasteful the black and white is, the BBFC still gave this an 18 (or XXX) rating. (Compare with Mrs Henderson Presents 15).
The film has little to recommend it for fans of porn, or even Bettie herself. And Gretchen Mol essays a a pretty blank canvas. The film has a framing device of Bettie waiting to give evidence at a Senate enquiry into pornography. In the end she is not called. The film purports to speak for her, but it would have made no difference if she had spoken. Bettie Page is someone in still pictures, not really a character at all. You might as well make a movie about the Mona Lisa* or The Girl With The Pearl Earring or something.
*Yeah, yeah – I know that Mona Lisa isn’t about the Mona Lisa. For a more in depth discussion on how the six Mona Lisa’s were made I suggest seeing the Doctor Who episode City of Death.