Bettie Page, a fetish goddess in black leather and bangs, was the perv pinup of choice back in the Eisenhower era. Any old sleaze could turn Bettie’s life into a kinky S&M wallow, a cinematic stroke book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that director Mary Harron, who co-wrote the scrappy script with Guinevere Turner, doesn’t do the expected. She’s too sly for that, too subversively funny. Her version of American Psycho in 2000, following her acclaimed 1996 debut with I Shot Andy Warhol, dodged the gore to take an ax to male vanity and greed. Her timeless theme here is the gap between real women and male sexual fantasies. Bettie, a sweet-natured girl from Nashville armed with her belief in God and the natural glory of her own body, giggled at the men who liked to see her model and pose with whips and chains. The dirt never touched her. She wouldn’t let it.
Harron needed just the right actress to play Bettie. And she lucked out big time. Gretchen Mol (The Shape of Things) is hot stuff in every sense of the term. She delivers the first performance by an actress this year that deserves serious Oscar consideration. There’s not a touch of self-consciousness or shame in Mol’s portrayal, despite the nudity. The script only sketches in the events of Bettie’s life — a bad marriage, a gang rape, a clash with a senator (David Strathairn) on a moral crusade. Harron has no interest in a psychological case study, which will get many critics on her case. Instead, she re-creates a time and place — New York and Florida in the 1950s — shooting in black and white with the occasional splash of color to evoke an era of repression in which sexual hypocrisy thrived. Hopelessly retro? Sure, if you don’t consider Internet porn and the politicians and religious zealots who use it as a convenient threat. The real Bettie, 82, reportedly objects to the word “notorious” in the title. The word is “ironic,” which makes Harron’s last image of Bettie indelible: an empowered woman able to reconcile God and her past. Unbloody and proudly unbowed.