Thursday, January 6, 2011


The first time I read about Bettie Page, I immediately did a Google Image search for her (safe search off). And I remember thinking, "That's it? THIS is what the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency got its collective panties in a bunch over? Bo-ring." Yes, I know it isn't fair to see 1950s pin-ups with the unfazed, cynical eyes of one who has spent even 10 minutes on the internet and learnt about Rule 34 firsthand. But for better or worse, nothing is shocking anymore. Even the mainstream magazines have racy BDSM photoshoots with famous actors and their wives (NSFW).

But you'd think that a movie about the Pin-Up Queen of the Universe, the quintessential dominatrix with her iconic bangs, who (probably) was the reason for the Kefauver Hearings and who later became an evangelist would just write itself to Oscar glory. Or, at the very least, to cult film glory. Instead, The Notorious Bettie Page turned out to be an insipid, surprisingly boring movie that no amount of whips and handcuffs could change. I felt like I was watching a Discovery channel episode. All that was missing was the narrator and the token expert opinion.

Nobody watches a biopic for its historical accuracy or to learn random irrelevant details about a famous person. I'd go read Wikipedia for all that. When I watch a biopic, I don't want a faithful chronicle of that person's life-- by all means, skip the boring bits and the inconsequential people. I want that person to come alive for me.They invented the term "artistic license" for a reason, you know. After all, there is a world of difference between a documentary and a feature film. At the end of the day, I want a goddamn entertaining movie.

People who watched The Social Network (2010) and then criticized it for its inaccuracies are missing the point. Romanticizing and villainizing people is all a part of the art of film-making. One of my favourite biopics is Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Edward D. Wood Jr. was by all accounts one of the worst film-makers ever, and yet, I have never seen a more touching tribute to anybody. Amadeus (1984) is wildly inaccurate about Salieri and the clownish Mozart. But tell me you didn't identify with Salieri and didn't understand his torment (I won't believe you). Even the American Film Institute thinks it's a pretty good movie (yes yes, some of you think that the AFI is composed of a bunch of prissy stuffed shirts who wouldn't know good cinema if it smacked them in the face. We've all read the Wikipedia entry, thank you very much).

Coming back to this yawn-worthy film. As you may have cleverly deduced, it is biopic of Bettie Page. Fortunately, that they don't waste too much time on the origin story and move straight to the hot photoshoots. Bettie is a spunky young woman who was (probably) abused by her dad, gang raped, divorced her husband and then heads to New York City to seek her fortune. Being a knockout with zero inhibitions, she becomes a famous bondage model, among other things. Anyway, blah-bondage-OMG-shocking-nudity-pornography-senate-hearing-outrage-blah happens and then, anti-climax, she becomes a bible thumper BUT she doesn't regret her sexy modelling past. The end.

Oh, whoops. SPOILER ALERT.

The entire cast and crew sleepwalked through the film like it was the most stultifying experience of their lives. Many scenes were irrelevant and the movie just didn't cohere. The filming in black and white came off as a desperate attempt to be edgy, and there was this smugness about how casual they were being about the "graphic" sex scenes. It all came off as very contrived.

The one oasis in this desert of a movie was Gretchen Mol, who was perfect as Bettie Page. She had that natural exuberance and irreverence that the real Bettie was famous for. But of course, thanks to the weak script, she was utterly wasted in this movie.

Those fetish vignettes and burlesque films starring Bettie are all probably better biopics than this apathetic movie.

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