Starring: Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Woodward, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, David Strathairn
Rated R for Nudity, Sexual Content and Some Language
Of all the people to who could possibly have been titled "The Pin-Up Queen of the Universe," Betty Page was by far the least likely. A doe-eyed girl from a small town, Bettie Page had the naiveté of a child and an a innocence to match, Bettie Page was more likely to be a teacher (which she attempted, but hated) or a housewife than a girl who posed for bondage pictures.
Betty did not have an easy start in life. Her first marriage didn't last long and involved abuse, she was abducted and gang raped, and while the movie doesn't go into this, she and her sisters were molested by their father. However, this stuff takes up about the first ten minutes. The film is mostly about her career as a model for the S&M scene, and that's where things get interesting. The contrast between the salacious nature of what she is doing and her eternally sunny personality is fascinating.
Unfortunately, the film is a bit of a mess. Director Mary Harron, who made "American Psycho," has a lot she wants to say about the nature of sex and pornography (in a rarity for an American film, it's a positive message), but she doesn't find a good way to say it. There's so much going on that it's impossible for her to keep it all straight. A better focused screenplay would have done wonders. Maybe it was the low-budget.
One thing she does get right is the lead performance. As Bettie, Gretchen Mol is sensational. There's no sense that she's acting. She and her character have fused. Mol is probably best known for playing Matt Damon's girlfriend in the overrated "Rounders," but here she proves that she is more than capable of holding a movie on her own. She plays Betty as someone who is complicit in her actions but doesn't necessarily understand them. To her, it's just modeling. If she has to dress in goofy costumes or take her top off (or more)...oh well. It also helps that Mol bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman she's portraying. In fact, before her death, the real Betty Page said that Mol was prettier than her.
I also liked Jonathan Woodward as Marvin, her new boyfriend who loves her and wants to protect her. He has a natural acting ability and charisma. He also has good chemistry with his co-star. Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer play the photographers who jump start her career. David Strathairn appears in a small role as a leader of a congressional hearing into pornography.
Sadly, these subplots are left drowning in a sea of interesting yet underdeveloped material, none of which are satisfactorily tied up when the end credits roll (the film doesn't have a conclusion and ends too soon in Betty's life). That's bad enough, but Harron's greatest sin is not focusing more on Betty. She was a fascinating person and Mol's performance hints at a wealth of substance that Harron doesn't really attempt to mine.
Apparently, at one point, Martin Scorcese was developing a project about Betty Page with Liv Tyler, but it never got off the ground. In a perfect world, Scorcese would have kept the project and taken Mol. Sadly, it never happened. And it's a pity that this movie is what we're left with. Bettie and Mol deserved more.