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The Notorious Bettie Page Returns on the Big Screen

A new film exposes an icon of 1950's pop culture in the United States: a pin-up model whose provocative photographs, though tame by today's standards, created an uproar all the way to the halls of Congress.

"What do you think of all this business?"
"Oh, I enjoy acting."

The first time Bettie Page appears in the film, she is in a demure suit and proper white gloves, waiting outside a Capitol Hill hearing room in Washington, D.C. Inside the chamber, Senators wave about photographs showing the stunningly beautiful young woman wearing little, if any, clothing at all as they investigate - and gain political advantage from - the impact of such photos: what one witness decries as "a greater menace to America than Communism."

It is 1955 and just six years since Bettie arrived in New York from her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Fresh-faced and optimistic, like so many before her, she came to the big city to find fame as an actress; but, following another well-worn path, the only work she can get in front of a camera is as a photographic model for pictures that were then considered pornographic:

"Hi, I'm Bettie."
"I'm Art. Step this way. Did Jerry tell you what the set-up is? You can change in there. The other girl has a half hour to go. That's Maxie. You can learn from her. She knows all about the three essentials: clothes, pose and expression."
"Clothes, pose and expression."
"Do you think you can do it?"
"Well, I can sure try."

The clothes and poses were less revealing and graphic than the typical perfume ad in today's magazines, newspapers or prime-time television; but at the time they were considered so provocative, they could not be sent through the U.S. Mail. Men who were interested in such artistic photography joined private clubs to snap their own pictures of professional models in lingerie; and in that surreptitious setting, Bettie Page quickly became a sensation.

"First of all, I think she did have a kind of natural talent in front of the camera, where she really came alive," says Gretchen Mol, who portrays the title character and explains that the apparent contradictions in many of those pictures, such as Bettie's bright, wholesome smile while posing in fantasy outfits, provided her insight into the character. "I felt a lot of responsibility to Bettie, really, and I can only hope she is pleased with the performance and with the depiction of herself. That was probably one of the bigger challenges, but it was also really wonderful to take on a character who was so fascinating and there was so much material. There was an infinite number of photographs and (film) loops. Everything that I uncovered and that I found about her kept kind of butting up against each other. There were so many dichotomies," she says.

"It's like when you're in church."
"Uh huh."
"Sometimes with the preaching and the singing and all you get lifted up out of yourself. It's like you're taken to another place."

"Here was a place where the camera really loved her. It was completely loving and respectful where she seemed to create a bubble around herself when she would do her posing. She was in her own world. She didn't seem to need to get something out of it. Instead, she was just completely there giving," says Ms. Mol.

"The Notorious Bettie Page" is co-written and directed by Mary Harron, who chose to shoot much of the film in black and white to match the tone of those famous original photos. "In a way I wanted to do the story of Bettie Page like a 1950's black and white movie, but somehow breaking the conventions of those movies ... because I think they would have done it more as a melodrama. It has a lot of the stylistic conventions of the movies of that era, but I think the story works out in a more unexpected way ... and, in a way, also more ambiguous," she says.

"It takes all types to make a world."
"What kind of types?"
"You see, the customers who want this stuff are very respectable, very high quality people: doctors, lawyers, diplomats ... even a judge. They're not people like us. The pressures they've got ... they're not the 'average Joe.' So what if they want something that seems a little strange. If it makes them happy, sure."

"It is not a 'message picture' in terms of trying to teach. It is more opening a door on a world that was kind of hidden," says Ms. Harron. "We sometimes have a view of the 1950's as this 'Disney-fied,' wholesome, pristine place; but, even if that is the public image of a society, there are usually many, many dark undercurrents and whether it's above ground or you keep it hidden, those things will be there. The vision that people have of the '50's is not necessarily how the 50's really were."

Shortly after those Senate hearings, the real Bettie Page dropped from the public eye until the late 1970's when her earlier pin-up photos inspired a new generation of artists and models. She survived many personal tragedies and devoted her life to Christian missionary works, but never denounced or denied the iconic image that brought her fame as a young woman. Now in her eighties, she no longer allows her face to be photographed, saying she would rather be remembered as she was when she was The Notorious Bettie Page.

"Will you take a picture of me? It's silly ... people take pictures of me all the time, but I don't know how to take one of myself."