The Notorious Bettie Page (18)

A model of restraint
Click to follow

Mary Harron opens her hugely enjoyable account of Fifties bondage queen Bettie Page with a familiar scenario in an unfamiliar setting. It's 1955 and, in a Times Square bookstore, men in regulation hats and coats are browsing magazines with titles such as Escapade, Whisper, Wink and Titter. Despite the air of transgression, these magazines are on a par with saucy seaside postcards. Then a nervous man asks to see what's "under the counter". What he is shown involves women dressed in bondage gear and chains, spanking each other. And the undercover agent gets his bust.

Such pictures caused a sensation at the time, sparking an investigation into the effect of pornographic material on the nation's youth. Page, a deeply religious girl from Tennessee who became the most famous pin-up of the time, was at the heart of the storm. She left behind a string of upsets, including a failed marriage and education, for a fresh start in New York. And there, despite attempts to become a serious actress, she found her true metier as a model, not least one with an open mind towards kinky boots and nudity.

As a biography, the film is as tame as Bettie's photos, introducing a psychological treasure trove of sexual abuse, then declining to mine it. But it works very well as a cheerful comedy, finely tuned to the moral hypocrisy of a period when Americans' singular inability to discuss the bedroom concealed - as Alfred Kinsey discovered - any number of sexual proclivities.

Harron switches persuasively between black and white for New York, and a very Fifties Technicolor for the scenes in Miami where Page discovers her inner naturist. Lily Taylor and Jared Harris are among those playing up the camp wonderfully, while Gretchen Moll - in a career-making role - conveys the charming inconsistencies of an elusive icon, who seemed equally at home with God and bondage.