Bettie Page: A US media phenomenon

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You may not have heard of Bettie Page, but in the US, the 82-year-old former pin-up model has become a media phenomenon. Her agents claim that the website for "the Queen of Curves'" has received 588 million hits over the last five years alone. There is a roaring trade in Bettie Page merchandise (silk bikinis, fountain pens emblazoned with her image, T-shirts, body jewellery including belly and tongue barbells, button sets, watches, Zippo lighters and, of course, photographs). Meanwhile, this month, a new film celebrating her extraordinary life story is premiering in the US. "I am more famous now than I was in the 1950s," Page recently claimed.

Arguably, what makes Page such an endless source of fascination isn't simply her appearance (her "locks as dark as midnight and her smile as bright as day", as her website tells us). It's the light she casts on America and its vexed, ambivalent attitude toward sex. She is a deeply contradictory figure: a woman who somehow retained her folksy, girl-next-door persona even when she was being photographed in bondage gear. The former Playboy centrefold from a poor Southern background is intensely religious. When she retired from modelling, she embraced God.

At preview screenings of The Notorious Bettie Page, the new film about her, some critics have been baffled. The movie is directed by Mary Harron, whose previous features include I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. Given Harron's track record, one would have expected her Page biopic to be a dark and brooding study of voyeurism and the exploitation of women. Instead, it is relentlessly jolly and upbeat.

Harron skirts over debates about pornography and freedom of expression, instead providing us with a portrait of an icon who seems as wholesome as Doris Day, albeit without any clothes on. Page, played with cheery effervescence by Gretchen Mol, just loves having her picture taken. She seems oblivious to the fact that those seedy-looking men who collect her pictures aren't just interested in her sunny personality.

Visit Page's website and look at the huge collection of photos available there and you can't help but notice her friendly, ever-optimistic smile. Even in the bondage pictures, some of which are deeply degrading, she somehow retains her cheery demeanour.

Harron's film suggests that both Page and the photographers she worked for regarded their work as a bit of a lark. They didn't understand why certain customers wanted pictures of Page trussed up, but if the demand was there, they had no qualms about trying to satisfy it. "What do you think about all this tying up business?" Page is asked. "Oh, I enjoy acting very much," she ingenuously replies. These were the 1950s, after all, the Eisenhower era, a lost age of (relative) innocence when the great American pornography industry was still in its infancy.

Harron remains unapologetic about not having made an overtly polemical, feminist film. She was, she says, simply trying to capture the spirit of the times. "For women in the Fifties, a lot of the way they dealt with things was to pretend it wasn't there - that there was no elephant in the room. So when Bettie was doing these [bondage] photographs, the one thing you didn't think about was what these photos were used for and who they were for. You were having fun dressing up, you were making people happy.

"Bettie didn't want to think about it any more than that. And it is important to see her as a woman of the Fifties, before 'therapy' culture. She isn't part of a world where everyone is confessing things or examining their emotions or looking at their childhood traumas. It's a world where people dealt with things like sexual abuse and rape by never talking about it."

Just occasionally, Harron's film touches on the dark underside of Page's life. There is one grim scene in which she is sexually assaulted. This was an incident that the model only revealed when she was in her seventies. At the time it happened, she simply refused to talk about it. Nor, until recently, was she any more forthcoming about her childhood, during which she has now acknowledged that she and her sisters were abused by their father.

Harron, a country music enthusiast, suggests that one of the main reasons she was drawn to Page was the model's Nashville background. She saw Page's turbulent and colourful biography as being akin to that of country divas like Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn.

The Notorious Bettie Page makes an intriguing counterpart to George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. Both films are set in the same period. Both feature congressional hearings. Strangely, David Straithairn (who played legendary broadcaster Ed Murrow in Clooney's movie) is cast here on the opposite side of the congressional fence as the moralistic Senator Estes Kefauver, one of the politicians who interrogate Page and her colleagues, the photographers Irving and Paula Klaw.

Mol argues that Page wasn't as naive as some of her detractors have suggested. She was simply a woman from a poor Southern background trying to make a life for herself in a society where her opportunities were very limited. By the late 1940s, Page was a divorcée and a would-be actress with nowhere to go. "She finds herself in New York City and she is making a living posing for photographs," the actress notes. "A lot of it was her not really crossing the line and looking at what people were doing with the photographs."

It's an extraordinarily courageous performance by Mol. Most A-list actresses shun nudity, but in The Notorious Bettie Page, Mol is required to disrobe again and again. Harron admits that she was initially doubtful about how she would be able to transform "a slim, Nordic-looking" blonde like Mol into a brunette like Bettie. "Then Gretchen came in to read... She already had it. She was able to do the sexuality in a very natural, spontaneous and innocent way, without in any way trying to be vampy."

The real Page refuses to apologise for her career as a pin-up. "Being in the nude isn't a disgrace unless you're being promiscuous about it," she told the LA Times last month. "After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird, too!"

Nor is Page enthusiastic about the title of Harron's biopic. She doesn't like the idea that she is in any way "notorious". Harron spent more than a decade trying to make the movie. She attempted to secure Page's blessing but the model's agents had already sold her life story to another company. "It was very sad to me that we couldn't deal directly with her but we talked to everybody around her," says Harron. "She is not, I think, against the film. It was just that she didn't want to breach the terms of the agreement with the other project."

Whatever else, The Notorious Bettie Page is not a hatchet job. Its portrayal of Bettie is benign and upbeat. It's also excellent publicity for the ever-expanding Bettie Page business. Some of the critics may have qualms about how the movie skirts over the darker incidents in her life, but with its release in the US the traffic on her website is bound to increase: it's a fair bet that yet more Bettie Page belly barbells will soon be sold.

'The Notorious Bettie Page' will be released in the UK later this year