How do you define a person who has always been between two worlds, one of presumed sin and one of supposed redemption? Especially when that person eventually succumbed to a split personality disorder in her latter years, as if to demonstrate her own point. If you’re director Mary Harron, you don’t shy away from showing the push/pull nature of THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE. You allow the character to drift back and forth between the healing forgiveness of the power of God and the church and the seductive illusion of control and dominance afforded to Page during her years as a pinup model. By doing so, audiences are offered a complex character that is propelled forward by a desire to leave her difficult past with a naïve enjoyment in others’ lust for her, and a struggle to reconcile her image in the eyes of God. Come the right time, it will no longer matter how many eyes are on her because there is only one pair that counts.
Shot mostly in black and white (with some unnecessary bursts of colour), THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is at times a light, humourous comedy, making the film an enjoyable experience and also one that pokes fun at how seriously people believe in the corruption of pornography. But the delicate hand of the director is more palpably felt during Page’s times of despair. Harron is a sensitive, considerate director who does not throw Page’s numerous and devastating blows of abuse in the face of her viewer. Instead, she allows the surprisingly effective Gretchen Mol, who plays the title role, the chance to hammer the pain of her character into the viewer with fear in her eyes, exhaustion in her cries and shame on her skin. Whereas most directors, perhaps most male directors, would find it essential to show the heroine in painful positions in order to draw a link between the kinds of atrocities that were put upon her and where her life took her, Harron has too much compassion for her character, her actress and her audience. From fragility, Page learns to trust people again and as more and more photographers fall in love with her image, the more she falls in love with their admiration and the control she has over the gaze. By the time her poses cross over into the realm of soft-core S&M, she has found a way to combine her need to be respected with the objectification she has been accustomed to her whole life.
Mary Harron’s Bettie Page is a woman who yearns for control over her life and destiny, yet ultimately is always being told where to stand, how to smile and what to wear. When she finally realizes that none of her choices have been her own, she chooses to embrace God and preach his word to those who will listen. The true sadness behind this most important decision is that she is still letting someone else guide her blindly; she just has more faith that His direction will be better for her soul.