Mary Harron: The notorious queen of cool

From punk rock to American Psycho, Mary Harron has been exposing the US underground scene to the public eye for decades, reports Chris Sullivan
Click to follow

I first met the film director Mary Harron several years ago in a Japanese restaurant in New York's St Mark's Place. I was there to meet with John Holmstrom, the co-founder and editor of Manhattan's infamous Punk Magazine, the publication that in 1975 dedicated itself entirely to the fledgling punk music scene that was brewing in the depths of Lower Manhattan, and Harron, one of the publication's founder journalists, popped in to say hello.

Demure and softly spoken, Harron's appearance belies her background as one of America's foremost punk commentators, who was there in CBGB's in 1975 to witness the Ramones' first engagement, was the first American journalist to interview The Sex Pistols, and back in 1981 wrote a history of the Velvet Underground for the NME. But if the lady's façade today says little about her punk rock past, her choice of subjects for her super-hip movies certainly speaks volumes.

Her forthcoming film, The Notorious Bettie Page, the story of the first Fifties superstar glamour and fetish model, has hit the groovy nail slap on its proverbial head as worldwide interest in vintage, striptease and all things burlesque grows to unexpected heights. Looking around New York, London or Paris, it is almost impossible not to notice the enduring legacy of Page as gaggles of girls with blood-red lips and jet black short fringed hair, dressed in Fifties' fetish clothing and lingerie take to the streets in stiletto heels so high they defy common sense. Harron's timing is perfect

"I'd been working on this project since 1993," recalls the Canadian-born director who moved to London at the age of 13. "And I'd been seeing all these girls for years back in New York and in London and I thought it was just rockabilly style. But then I got to know more about Bettie Page and it just clicked as to how influential she actually is. I was very attracted to the character of Bettie and the many contradictions she found herself in. But I was also intrigued by the naivete and the domesticity of the photos - you know, the wallpaper, the sofa and the lamp behind all these bondage photos, while Bettie has this almost wholesome look on her face that never seems to change whether she's hanging from a tree in a fake leopard-skin bikini or wearing rubber and brandishing a whip."

Indeed, Page was nothing if not a walking contradiction who managed to represent America's two everlasting obsessions - sex and religion - and live quite comfortably with both as she devoted herself to the teachings of Christ but still allowed herself to pose for pornographic shots.

"Everything I read about Bettie, and knowing Nashville a little bit, it seemed to me that she had always been religious," says Harron. "That part of the South is such a religious culture. For the poor, the church is this particular thing: when you don't have a friend, you have a friend in Jesus. It's religion as consolation, as refuge. Bettie would have done the modelling and posing and still believed in God. It would have been second nature to her. And we must remember that a pin-up girl was a very legitimate profession then - [Marilyn] Monroe did a nude centrefold and it wasn't that looked down on, and as far as the bondage was concerned, to Bettie it was just costume and acting and that was that. She relished dressing up and knew very little about the bondage scene."

One of the film's great assets is Gretchen Moll, who, as Page, is beyond perfection. Harron admits to not at first considering the blonde actress for the role, but then she changed her mind when Moll auditioned. "Gretchen just had an intuitive understanding of Bettie that was so clear from the very first," remembers Harron. "Gretchen wasn't acting sexy; she was acting the joy in posing. I think she knew instinctively that that was what Bettie was about: Bettie's delight in showing herself off; Bettie's delight in posing; Bettie's delight in her own body. Then also there was a kind of sweetness, friendliness and good nature - and innocence in the character that was very important to get across. When [Moll] actually put the wig on, I really was knocked out - she looked so like Bettie."

For the film, Harron pulled out all the stylish stops, employing many of the ensemble cast, such as Lili Taylor and Jared Harris, who had worked on her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, that told the tale of Valerie Solanis, her Society For Cutting Up Men and her attempted assassination of Andy Warhol in 1968. On its release, I Shot Andy Warhol was the hippest film on the block as it accurately portrayed New York at its most decadent, its most attractive and its most provocative. The film took seven years to get to its first screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, and then drew massive crowds and oodles of kudos.

"I was drawn to the story of Solanis because there was this ferocious, outsider quality to her sorrow and dissatisfaction," says Harron. "The film came at a time when I myself was feeling frustrated because I wanted to direct feature films, and as I'd had this idea years before I got to direct anything myself it came out in the writing. I felt like Valerie was so forgotten and misunderstood, and had been dispatched to history as this mad woman with almost nothing written about her and so I thought I'd address that."

The film came at a time when the more informed members of the public were again realising the worth of Andy Warhol, while Brit Art artists were name-checking his neo-Dada sensibilities. Harron was yet again bang on the money and queues of bright young things reached round the block. It was one of those films that one had to go and see. "I was surprised by how many people actually paid to come and see the film," Harron recalls. "And I was sort of overwhelmed by Sundance as I hadn't been to a festival before and I wasn't expecting all the attention so it was all a bit scary.

"I think we were best received in Cannes," adds Harron after a pause. "And Cannes, after Sundance, was probably the most exhilarating because it is like a daydream come true."

If I Shot Andy Warhol was like a dream come true, then her next film, the adaptation of the über-hip New York wordsmith Bret Easton Ellis's savage satire American Psycho, must have been a nightmare. At first she was hired to direct the film - and then fired when Leonardo DiCaprio accepted the starring role as the yuppie narcissist Patrick Bateman. When DiCaprio left the production, Harron was rehired, but after shooting began she was denied location permits in Canada, as authorities feared that the film would attract the wrong publicity.

Harron insisted on casting Christian Bale as Bateman, and all went swimmingly again - with Bale brilliant in the role - until it came to the screening when, even before it aired, some were calling it the most disgusting film ever made. But in true punk style, Harron had managed to create a major controversy and the anticipation was immense. When the film actually opened, what we saw was a biting satirical take on the much lauded and criticised bestseller that, excruciatingly cool, was at once disgusting and hilarious. Who wouldn't laugh at Bale's lectures on the talents of Whitney Houston prior to his murders, and who wouldn't smile as he works out to a tape of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was genius.

"After it premiered at Sundance, there was this really weird press reaction," said Harron in an interview with Anthony Kaufman at the time of the film's release "There were so many people outside and there was so much hype, and then it's quite a disturbing and bleak movie, and, obviously, people didn't stand up and cheer, but I felt like a lot of the audience got it. And obviously, a lot of other people didn't like it. But then it appeared in the press as if it was a disastrous screening.

"Roger Ebert [critic of the Chicago- Sun Times] wrote that it was the most loathed film at Sundance. But on the whole, I didn't feel like that at all. But since then, Ebert changed his mind about the film; now he's given it the thumbs up. I don't expect everybody to love the movie; but since then, the critical response has been very good."

Those who attacked the film failed to grasp that it was satire on Wall Street and all its resident evils, while its levels of violence, although rather excessive, were certainly less extreme than in the book. "I did feel that the film was seriously misunderstood," remembers the director now. "I always thought that the book was hilarious."

Since their release, both I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho have been allotted pride of place in the annals of contemporary classics, their deft scripts and cutting-edge wit ensuring that they remain somewhere near the top of the style pile, while The Notorious Bettie Page looks set to join them.

I asked the director if there was one thread that runs through her films. "I guess it's New York," she replies. "All three films are about the city and all three are about subjects I was very interested in or else I wouldn't have done them. My next film, if I can get it financed, is also set in New York, and takes me right back to where I started. It's called Please Kill Me and is based around CBGB's in New York in 1975 and tells of a few stories taken from Legs McNeil's book of the same name. Legs actually coined the term 'punk' and was one of my colleagues on Punk Magazine."

Mary Harron - the queen of cool.

'The Notorious Bettie Page' opens on 4 August