“I never thought it was shameful. It felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day.”
Thwack! Ow! Thwack! Ow! Thwack…! Ooh…! I’m really hammering the hell out of my keyboard. Hmm, that reminds me of something…
Bettie Mae Page made the most sordid of acts fun and wholesome. With her capacious smile and twinkling eyes, you believed she was relishing paddling the hell out of another woman’s bottom. Equally comfortable dressed in black lingerie while gagged and tied, her lolling stare challenged the viewer to find anything wrong with the image. Pornography focused on the male gaze is notoriously humour-free and po-faced; Bettie Page brought a sense of cheeky fun, dispelling the notion that she wasn’t enjoying herself too. Or possibly she saw it for how silly it all was. Sporting a distinctive, and much imitated, short fringe and jet-black hair, Bettie was renowned for glamour modelling and fetish photographs of bondage, whipping, spanking and domination during the 1950s. Bettie was also a devout Christian.
Finding success first in a fledgling Playboy magazine as Miss January 1955, Bettie’s iconic Christmas picture characterised her lack of inhibition. This image came in the middle of Bettie’s heyday as a sadomasochistic model for the brother and sister team Irving and Paula Klaw. Paula took the bulk of these images, and Irving sold them through mail order to fetish fans. Avoiding censorship by not actually featuring any pornographic or nude material, Klaw’s images featured titillating and cheesy scenes of restraint and punishment.
The FBI destroyed Klaw’s business on grounds of deviancy, using him as an example to deter others. By the turn of the 60s, Bettie’s modelling career ended and as she started attending regular Bible classes she withdrew from show business. Treatment for acute schizophrenia followed. After attacking a landlady, she was sentenced to a prison term of eight years. She didn’t know it herself, but the 80s marked an era of revival for Bettie Page with books, comics and films resurfacing to be avariciously consumed by new fans fascinated by her natural ease in front of the camera.
As Bettie-mania intensified and she learned of her new-found fame, she never allowed herself to be photographed or interviewed, preferring to be remembered as she was in the 50s. In a rare interview by the magazine that made her famous, Bettie stated that modelling had been preferable to pounding a typewriter every day. Her death from heart attack in 2008 came after years hiding from the spotlight. Her headstone reads ‘Queen of Pin-Ups’.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), is a curiously restrained and empty affair (no pun intended. No, make that pun intended). With the more intimate feel of a made-for-television biography and treating almost everyone as essentially innocent, it resembles Bettie’s own world view. Even a sexual assault in her college life does little to dampen her spirt. Gretchen Mol sparkles as she consumes herself with the character. The trouble is there is no flesh on the Bettie myth. Despite the film’s mission statement to tell you all about Bettie, she remains as elusive as she did in her years of hiding. And with no explanation for why she spent years playing at being tied and abused, the film portrays her as a naïve airhead. Even her later born-again Christianity is given little dissection and she becomes a catalyst for events without motive or reason. Director Mary Harron brings little visual flair aside from the innate detail of the period costumes, sets and monochrome photography.
The great interest of the film lies in the examination of 50s attitudes to pornography in the US and how they stand up compared to today. It’s obvious we’ve travelled a long road for ill or not. The longevity of Bettie’s appeal represents nostalgia not for a time before overt filth and depravity, but a desire to return to when it was (allegedly) more innocent and fun. The idiosyncratic twinkle in Bettie’s eye, unique styling and faux-naughty grin are all symbols of this golden age of good, honest, healthy perversity.