Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Just a sweet Christian gal in a ball gag

In Mary Harron’s bio-pic, Gretchen Mol plays ‘50s pin-up queen “The Notorious Bettie Page,” a sweet Christian southern gal whose photos and films have become icons of that era. Whether posing nude, as a jungle queen or even bound and gagged, Bettie Page brought an entirely new attitude to sexuality... she made it seem, well, natural.

Bettie (sometimes spelled “Betty”) Page had dreams of becoming an actress, but partially because of her pronounced and unshakable southern accent, mainstream Hollywood was not her destiny. Modeling, however, was another story. “Discovered” by an amateur photographer who was part of the “camera clubs” of the 1950s, Bettie quickly became a pin-up superstar, and what started as simple cheesecake soon evolved into more risqué shoots involving light bondage and fetish lingerie.

What made Bettie stand out from the other pin-ups of her time was that she seemed completely approachable, even sweet. Her smile was warm and inviting, even when she was holding a whip and teetering on six inch heels.

The photos led to a number of nudie and bondage films with names like “Teaserama” and “Varietease.” Bear in mind, there was never any sex in these films, and their burlesque-style dancing that was considered so scandalous fifty years ago is tame compared to the bumps and grinds that models do in bafflingly incongruous commercials for radial tires today. But the 1950s were a repressive era, and a Senate investigation into pornography, coupled with Bettie’s increasing devotion to God, led to her retirement in 1957. And that was the last anyone heard of Bettie Page... for a while.

In the 1980s, the cult of Bettie began to surface. As the rebelliousness of 50s style and music begat a retro subculture in the Reagan years, artists and hipsters rediscovered this mysterious beauty. In 1982, cartoonist Dave Stevens began a series called “The Rocketeer,” about a 1930s stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who discovers a rocket pack that he uses to battle the forces of evil. In the comic, Cliff has a girlfriend named Betty, a saucy pin-up model who bears more than a passing resemblance to Bettie Page. In fact, she looks exactly like her (despite the time period being almost two decades early).

Stevens is generally credited with bringing Bettie into the mainstream, but when the comic was adapted into a movie in 1991, “Betty” was toned down a bit, turned into “Jenny,” now a struggling Hollywood actress. At least they cast the part right. Jennifer Connelly, in addition to resembling Bettie, perfectly captured the combination of sweetness and sensuality, the girl next door, but almost too beautiful to be real.

As Bettie’s legend grew, so did questions as to her fate. Ironically, as a cottage industry of Bettie merchandise, artwork by Olivia de Berardinis and tribute sites (featuring new pin-up queens like Dita Von Teese, Bernie Dexter and Heidi Van Horne) propagated, the real Bettie had no idea. Part of the reason was she had been institutionalized following an assault on her landlady during a massive bout of depression. When she emerged in 1994, Bettie discovered that she had become more famous than ever (Uma Thurman’s black wig in “Pulp Fiction” that year was no doubt inspired by Bettie’s famous black bangs).

Rumors of a movie about Bettie’s life have been circulating Hollywood for over a decade. At various times, Liv Tyler, Charlize Theron, Rose McGowan and Hilary Swank were mentioned as being contenders to bring Bettie to life on the big screen.

In 1998, Christa Campbell played Bettie (without dialogue) in dramatized scenes for “The E! True Hollywood Story: From Pinup to Sex Queen: Betty Page,” bringing the “Dark Marilyn” further into the mainstream.

2004’s straight-to-video “Bettie Page: Dark Angel,” directed by Nico B., stars Paige Richards as the pin-up queen in a film that ostensibly chronicles the tail end of Bettie’s career. Melodramatic, stiffly-acted scenes of a frustrated Bettie quitting the biz in are only half the story; The rest of the movie is comprised of painstaking recreations of some of Bettie’s short striptease and bondage films. In some ways akin to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of “Psycho,” “Dark Angel” comes across as more of an sycophantic exercise than anything else.

Bettie’s greatest legacy is that she made sexuality feel natural, even when it strayed outside of the mainstream. She was comfortable with herself, even if she didn’t wholly embrace all of her subject matter. 50 year old photos of Bettie seem fresh and modern because of her ease. By embracing her own sexuality with grace and ease, Bettie Page became not only a sexual icon but a feminist one as well.

Whether or not “The Notorious Bettie Page” is a hit, it’s one more step towards Bettie taking her rightful place in the pop culture pantheon alongside James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as the true icon of the 50s that she is.

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