TORONTO””More than 50 years after she became America's most famous pinup, Bettie Page may no longer be notorious, but the bondage queen next door is definitely iconic. A photo of Page wearing only Santa's red hat likely rivals the Marilyn Monroe centrefold as one of Playboy's most famous images. She was the model for the girlfriend in The Rocketeer. And the reigning queen of the new burlesque movement, Dita Von Teese, cites Page as the wind beneath her tassels.
Gretchen Mol, star of The Notorious Bettie Page (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [April 28]), said that even before she auditioned for the film, she was aware of Page as “the woman with the black bangs and the leopard swimsuit” . And once she read the script, she was determined to wear that swimsuit. “My first impressions of her before I really got into this was this woman with a whip and black bangs, and that was kind of an austere dominatrix-y image, but her personality really wasn't that. She had a wholesomeness and southern manners,” Mol recalled. “Really more of a lady than a dominatrix.”
Sitting on a couch in a bedroom at the Hotel InterContinental just before the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mol explained that she didn't bother trying to look sexy for her audition””and she didn't focus on it in performance either. “I knew there's going to be fishnets, there's going to be heels; this is what we call sexy. The person underneath that is doing something entirely different. She just happened to have this great body, but basically she's living in some other reality. She's not trying to be sexy; she is sexy.”
Writer-director Mary Harron (Ameri??can Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) became intrigued by Page back in 1993, when she spotted a story about her on a TV news show. Harron loved the idea of a woman who was both deeply Christian and completely at ease with her body.
The Notorious Bettie Page follows Page from her childhood through an aborted acting career that leads to a life as a nude model and proto–porn actor for some of the friendliest pornographers ever seen on-screen (played by Six Feet Under's Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer from The Wire). The movie also covers the time when Page truly became notorious: her appearances in front of a U.S. Senate committee investigating pornography. Think Good Night, and Good Luck. with T?&?A, leather, and whips. It even features David Strathairn (who played Good Night's Edward R. Murrow) as prude Sen. Estes Kefauver.
There are also a few failed romances, but the real relationship at the heart of the film is between Page and the cameras. “Her chemistry with the camera was so unique. A lot of people take great pictures, but she really gave something,” Mol said.
Mol believes one reason those images were and are so appealing is that Page was so at ease with herself, no matter what she was or wasn't wearing. “A lot of it was her pure childlike joy when doing it, her lack of self-consciousness,” she observed. “The camera somehow had become a playpen; it was like a safety zone to her. Almost like when athletes talk about being 'in the zone'. I saw it as some kind of spirituality that emanated from her where she was just so open and accepting. And yet you could see that she got a lot out of it, and in that way she never felt exploited, because she was getting something from it too.”
She noted that the Page films depicted in the movie are almost frame-by-frame re-creations of the notorious originals. “And the amount of fun they were having, it's almost like a slumber party or something. Bettie felt that her modelling was like acting. She'd put on different costumes and get dressed up and play the role. But in order to sort of go there as me, I called upon my own dance background, because she had her own style of dance.”
Mol knew she needed to be equally at ease with posing naked if she was going to pull off a convincing portrayal. “I knew I had to enjoy it as an actor, and, through Bettie, I was able to. And it was fun, because she makes it okay.”
And playing Page was more than okay. “For me, it has been the biggest opportunity and the best experience I ever encountered. I don't expect it to happen again soon because there just aren't that many roles in great movies to go around. So I keep my fingers crossed that I have this kind of opportunity again in my career, but I'm grateful for it now.”