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Mysterious Skin

From porn to born again: Harron's reverent biopic contemplates its subject's essential innocence

Half a century after her apotheosis as America's most popular pinup queen and under-the-counter bondage babe, 25 years after her cult first manifested itself in comix and fanzines, '50s icon Bettie Page has her biopic. Can the star on Hollywood Boulevard be far behind?

Actually, The Notorious Bettie Page, directed by Mary Harron from a script written with Guinevere Turner, isn't Bettie's first feature. There have been several documentaries and straight-to-video dramatizations of her career—not to mention Jennifer Connelly's turn as the Bettie-styled heroine in the 1991 adaptation of Bettie-smitten Dave Stevens's retro comic book The Rocketeer. What distinguishes Harron's project is its propriety; in its avoidance of schmutz, it might have been directed with the white gloves favored by Gretchen Mol's prim-when-not-posing Bettie.

Like one recent DVD compilation of the peep show pageants Bettie made for special-interest photographer Irving Klaw, Harron's biopic opens with a peek at the innocent raunch of mid-'50s Times Square. Unlike the DVD, however, The Notorious Bettie Page shows a hapless fan being busted for the crime of buying the bondage stuff, then cuts to the juvenile delinquency hearings conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver (near look-alike David Strathairn). Klaw's "pornography" was blamed for a teenage boy's inadvertent death and he was called to testify—as was Bettie, introduced demurely sitting in the outside corridor.

A movie more attuned to historical ragtime might have made something of the fact that Kefauver, then running for president, and Bettie were both native Tennesseans—and that, thanks to Walt Disney, that state's greatest son, Davy Crockett, was in the process of providing American juveniles with a new, wonderfully merchandizable role model. The Notorious Bettie Page is not all that far from Disneyland, but there is room for only one icon. Harron flashes back to establish Bettie's fundamentalist background and the miracle of her innate, if abused, trusting nature.

Without ever losing her essential innocence, Bettie makes the transition from small-town sex object to big-city camera-club model and beyond. Mol's fetchingly bewigged Bettie is a simple country girl—God-fearing and teetotaling. Dreaming of a stage career and studying the Method, she's cheerfully game for any sort of dress-up (or down). Bettie can't act but she can pose—that's the source of her pleasure, and that pleasure is infectious. So too her good nature: Bettie's goodness transforms the world. She is impervious to exploitation. Even the Klaws are shown as an affable pair of trolls. Irving (Chris Bauer) offers his models "some beautiful sliced brisket" while sister Paula (Lili Taylor) teaches the lesson of erotic tolerance: "It takes all types."

What type was Bettie? A beautiful brunette in the age of blonde bombshells, a superstar in the seedy sub-Hollywood of the Times Square peep show, she is often conceptualized as a Bizarro World version of her near contemporary Marilyn Monroe. Both women were natural exhibitionists who projected not cold self-involvement but friendly generosity. Marilyn, as Norman Mailer wrote, "suggested that sex might be difficult or dangerous with others, but ice cream with her." That was all the more true of Bettie, given her job as masturbation fodder and her starring roles in Klaw's bargain-basement s/m romps.

The dankest dungeon would be warmed in the sunshine of Bettie's smile or crumble under the force of her wink. All is fun. Even more childlike in her enthusiasm than Marilyn, she never seems happier than when prancing around in her underwear and a pair of nine-inch heels. Hers was essentially a solo act—and Harron's movie doesn't violate that solitude. Bettie exists for the camera; she is to be looked at but never touched. Although their script assigns her several lovers, the closest the filmmakers come to placing their heroine in a sexual situation is signaling her father's abuse or dramatizing the (offscreen) gang rape that sends Bettie from the hell of Nashville to the heaven of Times Square.

And a glorious place it is. As demonstrated in I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron has a tremendous feel for period detail. There's a hyper-real, if unavoidably airbrushed, quality to her loving reconstructions of Bettie's iconic poses and Klaw's tawdry scenarios. And as with Tim Burton's similarly reverent and even more fetishistic Ed Wood, there's a whiff of embalming fluid. Not just art but life must be fixed for eternity. Burton solved the problem of Wood's sordid career by granting the "world's worst director" a success he never actually enjoyed. Ever self-sufficient, Bettie took care of that herself. In the late '50s, she gave up modeling and found Jesus. Her soul was saved even as her image was preserved on film.

Marilyn died for our sins. Bettie lived to grant us dispensation. ("We're laughing all the time while we're doing this," she explains to her wildly disapproving boyfriend—a serious actor—when he discovers the Klawful truth.) Indeed, the movie's most hilariously obvious scene has Bettie trussed up, crucifixion-style, taking advantage of a break in the filming to prompt the director to remove her ball gag so she can explain her belief that she's been blessed with a God-given talent for posing.

Rather than cast Bettie as a sex martyr of the repressive '50s, Harron and Turner contemplate her born-again beatitude. (They don't, however, mention her years of work as a counselor for the Reverend Billy Graham—a photo op, surely, for the ages.) Last seen, Bettie is preaching in a Miami park, giving herself to the lost souls she finds with the same open joy as she had offered her image to the great unloved.

Not for nothing is this movie opening on Good Friday. It can be as boring as church. There's no snake in Bettie's Eden and no narrative to Harron's movie. It's more of an altar piece: Our Lady of the Garter Belt, the Fastidious Bettie Page.

 
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