Filmmaker Mary Harron seems compelled by icons and outcasts, trying to dig into the ironies and paradoxes of women who don’t fit into a neat feminist stereotype. Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol and now the title character in The Notorious Bettie Page are complex figures in pop culture because, according to Harron’s thesis, they weren’t attempting to represent an ideology. They were being themselves and were swept along the wave of sensationalist history. Bettie Page existed as an icon of 1950s pin-up cheesecake, gaining some level of kinky notoriety for bondage photos, nudie shots, and having her name thrown around during a Congressional trial on pornography. Harron uses the character to make points about our attitudes toward sex, particularly the hypocritical aspects of the male gaze, and makes a special point of highlighting Bettie’s conservative, deeply committed religious upbringing. “Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden,” Bettie says. “It was after they sinned that they put on clothes.”
Resisting the conventions of the traditional biopic at every turn, The Notorious Bettie Page never finds its footing as a story. Bettie remains more of a conceptual idea than a character, and scenes play out as interesting queries that lack a sense of dramatic momentum. A great scene features playfully obnoxious photographer John Willie (Jared Harris) snapping pictures of a trussed-up Bettie (Gretchen Mol, who brings sunny warmth to each scene even if she only has one or two facial expressions to work with). Willie asks the God-fearing Bettie what Jesus Christ might say if he saw what she was doing right now. It’s a strong question, and while one is pleased by Bettie’s sensible and unashamed response it’s representative of the tone of the entire movie: a smart person’s Q&A about the role of sex in our lives, and how that is filtered through America’s history of Puritanism and hidden desires. Every point the movie makes is worthy of contemplation, but despite the pulpy black-and-white cinematography that ripens into glorious Technicolor hues The Notorious Bettie Page is formally buttoned-down. The visual choices are restrained, allowing the heady ideas to speak for themselves. In other words, it’s a thesis movie that aims for the mind, but never captures Bettie’s soul.