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THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (R) (2006)

Picturehouse Films

Official Site

Director: Mary Harron

Producers: Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon

Written by: Mary Harron, Guinivere Turner

Cast: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, Norman Reedus

Rating:


The Notorious Bettie Page for me was a rather surprising, under-the-radar biopic. When I first saw it, I’d not heard of it once. It was produced by HBO Films, from my understanding with the original intent of being made for that station such as the another well done HBO Films biopic, The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers. Now the biopic documenting the early life and times of the infamous pin-up model, Bettie Page is set for a limited theatrical release.

Page is the first feature of director Mary Harron (interview follows review) since American Psycho (2000), reuniting her with Psycho screenwriter, Guinivere Turner. Turner it seems has a lot of trouble finding work, as she no longer writes the Showtime hit series, “The L Word,” and was most recently credited as the screenwriter for Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne, labeled a cinematic “debacle” by Variety. Quite honestly, I have to question the intelligence of any promising writer, no matter how destitute, who takes a job writing a Uwe Boll movie.

The biggest surprise of this movie had to be Gretchen Mol’s performance as the titular Bettie Page. Mol has always been a strong but underrated and under-utilized actor, much like yours truly. Having recently been given a chance to play a leading role (albeit in a short film), it’s a truly liberating and helpful experience getting that chance you’ve been starving for—your chance to shine. Mol executes this beautifully, totally selling herself as Page, baring it all physically and figuratively for the world to see.

What I found most tragic about Bettie Page as a character is that she’s a truly sweet and charming young woman. She loves God and Jesus, has a very pleasant personality, never curses, and doesn’t drink. The problem is that she’s frequently exploited—whether by her father, who most likely sexually abused her; her shallow and abusive husband (Reedus); filthy thugs who force her to perform favors; or photographers who turn her into BDSM magazine/film queen.

Page tries to express that there’s nothing wrong with what she did, and that’s it not a sin to show off your body, pose naked, all these things were totally natural. “Adam and Eve were nude in the Garden of Eden. It was when they sinned, they put on clothes.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s that she was exploited so much in her youth, and being surrounded by male pigs and abused by them made her susceptible or perhaps even attracted to it. It destroyed her inhibitions.

Of course the conservative establishment rears its ugly 1st-Amendment-hating head to blow the whistle on her material. But I had already seen The People Vs. Larry Flynt. The most interesting aspects of this movie deal with Bettie’s personal life, her aspirations of being a legitimate actress, and how her modeling affects her.

The movie is in black and white, save for select scenes featuring a nostalgic, old-school ’50s-esque Technicolor. These scenes take place only in Miami.

As a biopic, the movie stops pretty early in Page’s life. Page is in fact still alive today, having become rather reclusive later on. I felt like there was more of her story to tell, but I don’t expect a sequel any time soon.

—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris

Roundtable Interview with director/writer Mary Harron

On Monday, March 13 of SXSW, thanks to Reinhart Marketing, I was given the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Mary Harron, director of American Psycho and the new biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, which played at the film festival. I and several other reporters were there to interview Ms. Harron. Not all the questions here are my own. I specifically mark the ones I asked.

Hybrid: Are you disappointed with Guinevere Turner at all (regarding BloodRayne).

MH: I didn’t see the movie. I didn’t see it. Also I think it got changed from what she wrote.

Hybrid: You don’t think it will blacklist her?

MH: No, I don’t think so. Also you know I think when somebody writes a script, it’s a blueprint, it’s not even a blueprint, it can get altered so much.

Hybrid: I understand that and I know a job’s a job. I don’t know why anyone with any sort of reputation would want to associate with—(Uwe Boll)

MH: Well I haven’t seen any of his stuff, so I don’t know.

Hybrid: Well they compare to Ed Wood and he’s considered the worst filmmaker working today.

Hybrid: *laughing* Oh, okay.

Hybrid: He’s like the plague.

MH: Ed Wood films are now really fascinating and fun to watch. That may be true. I love Ed Wood films.

Hybrid: I personally think it’s an observation he does not deserve.

MH: *laughs*

[At this point, the last reporter, who was a little late, comes into the room and the roundtable officially gets started.]

Hybrid: Just to get us started, I was wondering for the casting process for Bettie Page, how that worked out, and how you eventually chose Gretchen Mol?

MH: I looked at a lot of different people, a lot of—you know when you start a casting process people send in tape or the agencies call you and say, “Look at this person, look at that person,” and… when it’s a real-life person with such a strong image you just start with the physical appearance—resemblance, inevitably say, “Who looks like Bettie Page? Who has the same qualities as Bettie Page?” I don’t want to name names actually. But I looked a lot of tape and a lot of people came in to read for it. Well-known people, not-well-known people. I must have seen 40-50-60 people. Halfway through that process, you have these lists, and when the casting director gives you the list it has almost everybody of any reputation in that age group, appropriate or not. It always happens in casting and the movie company wants that as well, so you look and it could be something ridiculous—

Like Halle Berry is on the list?

MH: Yes! It’s like that.

*laughter*

Hybrid: Could you have afforded Halle Berry?

MH: No we couldn’t have afforded Halle Berry. But well-known people, very well-known people wanted to do it because it’s Bettie Page, and a lot of people are obsessed with Bettie Page. And Gretchen Mol was on the original list and I did not check her name. It’s like that’s ridiculous, because I know Gretchen and I had actually originally cast her in American Psycho and she had to drop out because she was on this Paul Schrader movie and the schedules conflicted. We already had lunch together, we all really liked her, and I thought she was very good, and an underrated actress. I kind of already thought that. But, she’s not Bettie Page, she’s blonde—I thought of her as very slim, blonde, kind of 1920s, 1930s looking. She’s not at all the ’50s looking type. And then, halfway through it I just couldn’t—I was getting very depressed. All these people coming in… and there were beautiful, black-haired girls coming in all the time. Then girls would come in full Bettie Page make-up and do the pose… and Gretchen came in and she wasn’t wearing a wig, she was just—and because she also didn’t think she looked like Bettie—she just came on to have a shot at it. She came in you know, didn’t dress up as Bettie, and she just gave a beautiful, natural reading. And I was like, “That was really good.” They taped it, and I was kind of very surprised, “That was really, really good.” That night I took it home, and I looked at all the tapes of the day, and I said, “You know this is surprising, look at this.” I showed my husband, he said, “Well you should look no further. You’ve already found her.” And I think so too. I had already—no one—it’s like for everyone else they were straining. And for her it was as natural as breathing to be this character. And one of the things that she had that nobody else had was this complete joyfulness and innocence that she brought to it. Plus a little sort of melancholy. You know someone who had been through some things. So she had a certain kind of wisdom and experience, but also just this very almost like childlike joy of posing that she was able to convey. And really the foundation of the performance you can see in that original—I just watched it the other night out of curiosity. And of course, it’s a low-key version of the performance that she would eventually give, but the essence of it was there. It was a very exciting—she opened my eyes to something. You can never make assumptions about people but what, who can do something, you know?

She had the part. Was that very daunting? Was that very challenging?

MH: Well then of course you had to persuade the movie, you know HBO, to cast her. And she wasn’t what they had in mind. So we went through several auditions to her in so, not everybody saw—I think it’s very hard when you do a lot of casting and you get used to seeing something, and it’s low-key. You see what you’re looking for, you know that they have that. And then not everyone sees it… they don’t see what you’re seeing.

Was there any resistance to her? Because she was hyped as this big IT-girl a few years ago and kind of fell from grace, was there any resistance to casting her because of that?

MH: I think there was. I think it may have been unconscious on their parts… You know every year, in the movies they always want you to cast whoever the hot girl is out of Sundance.

Hybrid: *cough*Jessica Alba*cough*

MH: Yeah. Or it’s Keira Knightley. Whoever has just had a big hit. You know that one person who everybody wants to cast, like Keira Knightley or whoever has just had a hit at Sundance. The biggest star of the day. Scarlett Johannson, or XYZ who just had an indy film out. She really did like three auditions, and for the last one she really dressed up and really did the whole thing, and then I had to be very sure, “This is what I see. I don’t want anyone else.”

Hybrid: And I think that’s really one of the greatest things about the movie and how surprising it is, you see Gretchen Mol really sort of transform into Bettie Page and because of that sort of stigma that she was that IT-girl that “fell from grace” and you are really surprised to see, “Wow!” I was shocked, I was shocked.

MH: And one of those things about someone who isn’t as well known is that they don’t have so much baggage, that you’re not like “Nicole Kidman playing Sophie.” And of course you also, it’s a physical transformation. When you look at her, you are seeing a different person than what your associations with her are. And also I think she brought just emotionally an understanding of the sadness and the disappointments of the glamour girl life, you know. She probably brought more to the role than she would have if she was twenty. And you need that in Bettie Page because Bettie Page also was twenty-six when she started her pin-up career. She’s at the age when most people are ending their pin-up careers. And she was in her thirties when it ended, it’s really quite remarkable. So she wasn’t a kid. She had a broken marriage. She went really through a lot. But it wasn’t just a naïve young girl. The thing about Bettie, which was also true of Gretchen, was that they were able to keep a certain innocence despite a bad experience or whatever happens to them.

What about all the research that went into creating this film? I mean how extensive did you have to go? And why did you choose not to put “a biopic” at the end?

MH: The one thing I could’ve put that would’ve been nice maybe was to say she never posed for photographs again. But in terms to say, “What happened to her?” is “Where do you stop?” Because she had a very complicated life, in fact in the middle of writing this, a book came out which said all these terrible things that happened to her, about fifteen to twenty years after the film ends. She had mental breakdowns and attacked her landlady with a knife. Very, very bad things happened to Bettie. And we thought about this mid-way through the script and one of the reasons the script was so long was we went back and said, “Okay well let’s see if we can do a version to incorporate it.” And then in the end, we worked on that for a year, it was quite a long time. And then realized in order to explore how she got to that point, from the end of our film, you really need fifteen years of disappointment and loss which is likely grinding her down. And also the aging I think, what it was like for her to be middle-aged, for anybody who’s been a—

Their beauty is on display.

MH: Their beauty is on display. It’s her whole identity. I think that was a huge part of her kind of breakdown in the end. And where we end at, she’s still young and beautiful—still in her thirties, still very beautiful. So that was—in order to explain that, you really need to follow the details of her life. And I thought to put that out would be so strange and so surprising, people wouldn’t—“Well how did that happen?”

It’s almost like you need a sequel.

MH: You always need a sequel… And if we’re really going to write that—She married Billy Neal again. She did all kinds of wild things. Because she was in bible school, she wanted to be a missionary. And they said, well in order to be a missionary, you can’t be a missionary because you’ve been divorced. She went back, persuaded Billy Neal, got him to convert, he became born again, he was actually when I met with him, you know fifty years later.

Was that her first husband?

MH: Yeah, Billy Neal. And then they got married again, and he was very jealous as ever, and the marriage broke down.

What was that like, meeting him?

MH: Well you know he was very charming. It was very interesting, he was a—you know he was this wild, Texas boy. You can see why she liked him, and he was very attractive and charming. He said one thing like, “Whoa!” He talked about all the fights they had, and the jealousy. Every time they went dancing, there’d be a fight in the dance hall. And he said, “But I never hit her with a closed fist.”

*laughter*

Hybrid: A closed fist is over the line.

MH: Yeah. And that was also the view though of what was normal for the time, you know? Where a husband would cross the line.

Considering when you look at history, you always have to keep that in mind, that you always do period pieces.

MH: Yeah.

What motivates you? I mean you got ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s films.

MH: Yeah, I know. And I would love to do something modern because it’s so much easier. And one of the problems is doing period pieces are just hell in terms of production, you know? Because you can’t just go out and shoot. And actually I have a—my husband’s a director as well—we actually have a TV thing we’re writing, idea that where we would—a lot of would be just going out and shooting in the street, like life as it is in Brooklyn. I would love to do that. But then in terms of film, I’m very interested in research. I was a journalist—I didn’t go to film school—at college I studied English, literature, going into the historical background, so I’m very interested in history. And then I do love re-creating a world. And my design people, the people I work with, we’re all very, you know we get totally possessive. And I enjoy—and it’s laboriously expensive. But I’m addicted to it. It’s like, I have to wean myself off this—

How much of the clothing is vintage in this one? And how much of it was re-created?

MH: Fair amount of vintage. And then some of it was also like with the underwear, you know taking either, copying period foundation garments or then—all of like her clothes would then be re-tailored to fit her. And John Dunn who is a fantastic designer, did very, very artful padding. And obviously their see-through, there’s no padding.

*laughter*

MH: … Gretchen is a slimmer girl. But things like the little—the underwear that she’s wearing, which Bettie used to make herself actually… with the black daisies and stuff, we made those. Because they should be handmade. We wanted to get that feeling with someone sitting at home with their sewing machine. One of the things of having a tight schedule and a low budget was I wanted to have more things of her just sitting at home sewing a few little interstitial things, just her at home. And just could never get the chance.

How long did you spend shooting?

MH: It was thirty-two days… and then we did three days of re-shoots. I actually re-shot the ending. The original ending wasn’t black and white. It was her preaching on a street corner. And we tested it with an audience. It just seemed kind of flat. It just ended. And I decided to shoot it in a park, and make more of a deal out of it. And I went to look a park in Brooklyn near where I live, it’s where we were doing our re-shoots in New York. And it was odd, the park was so beautiful. I thought, “Oh no! We’ll just shoot it in color and it’ll be transcendent!” More spectacular, so we just did that.

Can you talk a little bit about the decision to shoot some scenes in black and white and some in color?

MH: Yeah… and I always imagined the film in black and white. From the very beginning I just thought black and white. And the best part is those famous images of the ’50s are in black and white. And the Klaw world whenever you see it is black and white. And it just seemed aesthetically right. And then the things, the impetus I guess of the look of it or the things I really love from the ’50s, things like the films of Sam Fuller… these kind of really great, kind of B movies, but they’re really like auteur B movies, they’re really great... and then I hadn’t really thought about it, but I came to type out the first Miami scene, and Technicolor blue wave hits the screen... “And suddenly it will go to color! People will be amazed!” So it was just instinctive, but I think emotionally it’s right because for her, Miami, it really was this kind of paradise place where she’s happy. She would escape to it in the movie when things went rough... and also because of the Bunny Yaeger photos which we remember her for, which is the other thing she’s most famous for—in color.

How long did you take for the pre-production? The research?

MH: Well the research was just over many years. You know I worked on it. It was going to be a short film. I was going to make it as a short film before I made my first movie. And then we couldn’t get anybody to finance it. And I started working on it again, with Guinevere by that point, I met Guinevere and we were working on it together. But then American Psycho came along, decided to write that, it was always basically whichever project comes together first. And I had a baby, then I made American Psycho. Then I had another baby. And by that point, we spent a lot of time re-working the script—there were different versions... and then you realized what the film was really about was her heyday in New York. And that’s when it always really got going, when she came to Coney Island, started modeling, and met the Klaws... and it’s really a film about the ’50s and her heyday, and its kind of downfall. So yeah, it took a long time. But the pre-production, the actual physical pre-production when you’re hardcore, you got the team, you got the production, took about eight weeks.

Any reaction from anybody in Bettie Page’s camp?

MH: Well Bettie’s seen it actually. And she definitely liked Gretchen. I think she’s still processing it. I think it was hard for her to see her own life. I think the hardest thing for her was actually seeing the Senate hearings, which I think is a very sort of painful memory for her, I think she was enjoying it up until then, apparently. She saw the film at the Playboy mansion with Hugh Hefner... I wasn’t there, they didn’t let me go. They thought it was kind of awkward if I was there. So it was the producer’s wife. But Hefner liked it, I heard that... Bunny Yeager came and saw it in Miami last week. And she wasn’t so sure about the actress playing her that she felt didn’t resemble her enough, Sarah Paulson, but she’s a great actress I think. But she really liked the film and she said it was very honest, which I was pleased about. And then Paula Klaw’s son, Ira, came to see it. And he thought it was a very good portrait of his mom. I think he was pleased also that it doesn’t you know with the way they were presented because it did—

So did you meet Bettie Page then?

MH: No, I never did. I met her brother in the process of negotiating with her lawyer to get the rights to her story, but he wanted a lot of control over it, and he wanted script approval and all kinds of things. We were going back and forth and he sold her life rights to somebody else.

[A little later we were told it was getting time to wrap up the session.]

Obviously you put a lot of time and research into all of these, so what do you have coming up?

MH: A film, another period film, about the ’70s, New York punk rock in the ’70s.

Hybrid: I remember a few years back with American Psycho, there was this whole thing with American Psycho. Is it going to be Leo? Who’s Christian Bale?

MH: *laughs* Yeah, yeah.

Hybrid: I just wanted to thank you for making it Christian and giving him his break-out role, and now he’s Batman.

MH: Now he’s a big star.

Hybrid: Batman rocks.

MH: *laughs* Yes. Well I hope Gretchen will be a big star now, too.

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