Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!
by Kyle Turner
As playful and slick, as smart and self-possessed as its subject, the genius of Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page is dolled consistently throughout the film, but first appears, albeit faux-coyly, in its first scene. Jostling the audience back to New York in 1955 via dreamy stock footage, and then placing them in a magazine shop of ill fame, a customer asks the clerk if he sells any material containing, as he says, more “restraint”. The answer is yes, and the clerk shows the john a copy of a publication with a model well known within her niche, sporting black skin tight clothing and a whip. The clerk confirms he has more of this ilk, and the customer whips out his… badge. Soon enough, the clerk is in cuffs, on charges of selling pornography. It’s a thoughtful, amusingly sardonic line drawn between the ties that bind in the play-acted photos (rope, whips, etc.) and the shackles on the store owner’s wrists. But Harron draws it out cleverly to suggest that those restraints are not only physical tangible things, but exist ideologically within society, and pertain often to the autonomy of women’s bodies. Because, so often in western society, restraints are applied devoid of volition, not unlike Miss Bettie Page’s (Gretchen Moll) moniker.
Framed around a 1955 hearing about the negative effects of pornography led by Senator Estes Kefauver, the focus of Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner is not pornography in and of itself but agency and gaze. They outline sensitively the way that the sexual trauma Page experienced throughout her early life shaped her relationship to her body and to her soul. Growing up religious in Tennessee and being an anomalous beauty in her small, conservative community establishes a particular idea of how she conceives of her own body and self-worth, as well as her relationship to God.
Mol plays Page like she’s always straddling the line between naivete and self-awareness, which was ultimately the appeal of Page as a pin up model. As she learns how to act as a model, she hones in on her persona: witty, saucy, lustful, naïve, knowing, looking at you looking at her. Perhaps part of Page’s brilliance was that she knew you were looking, and that was just her personality, barely acting at all.
But part of looking and being looked at – particularly given how Bettie Page became, within a certain context, part of a zeitgeist – was to what degree she could own her image. It was a struggle of autonomy, who she could be, and who photographers wanted her to be. As her career begins, her charm and childlike qualities woo photographers, allowing her the most power. It’s even there as she gets deeper into bondage photography.
Page’s career continues to thrive. The photographers are directors, and you see the different relationships she has with them, how her performance and expression changes depending on the person she’s working with. As Bunny Yeager, Sarah Paulson imbues a tender curiosity in her photographs of Bettie, while John Willie (Jared Harris) prefers Bettie rough and naughty. Bettie dreams of being an actress on the stage or in film, but she’s unable to let herself go in her acting classes and auditions in the manner she can as a model.
Turner and Harron aren’t strangers to the subject matter of sexuality, body, and agency. The two transformed Bret Easton Ellis’ notoriously misogynistic American Psycho into one of the great horror films of the 21st century, a scathing indictment of toxic masculinity and capitalism. Turner also starred in the Stuart Urban film Preaching to the Perverted, playing a dominatrix in New York named Tanya Cheex, who foils a conservative MP’s plans to use a geeky mole to bring down her house of sin. That film, too, framed sexuality as moral crusade for its characters, with Turner’s mistress toying with Biblical iconography.
As editor Tricia Cooke wittily mixes archival footage and animates Page on covers, photospreads, and postcards, and Harron and cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III shoot a majority of the film in black and white, the goal is less one of nostalgia but rather an attempt to articulate the ways in which the struggle to own one’s body in public escalates within oppressive systems whose reach grows exponentially in the modern world. Thus, they effectively debunk a myth of a “time of innocence” in the 1950s; the “good old days” were in actuality repressive, exploration of sexuality had to exist underground, and the control of women’s bodies was the norm in both spaces.
They call her the “notorious” Bettie Page, a title she’s visibly ambivalent about. Though aware of the joy and pleasure her work brings to people, the image of herself escapes her grip and her iconography as “pin up queen of the world” – as one man calls her after she’s converted to Evangelical Christianity – becomes uncontrollable. Mol is able to articulate the internal battle she feels, rolling all of her memories around in her head, as she sits for hours in the courthouse waiting to give her testimony. There she wonders what her identity is to herself. She mentions, earlier in Miami, that she never learned to take a photo of herself. For most of her life, she has been defined by other people, and directed by them. The film asks: what would it be like to have had the chance to define yourself?
Photographer John Willie asks her, while she’s tied up, arms aptly spread, what she thinks God would think of what she’s doing. Her answer is, on its surface, quaint and indicative of her innocence, saying that God gave her the talent to pose in photos and those photos make people happy. But her answer reveals the way she thinks about the very dynamic between bodily pleasure and the pleasure of the soul: that they are, or at least should be, inextricable from one another. Spirituality and pleasure would be as crucial a part of her career as a kind of actress-auteur model as someone like Martin Scorsese, and The Notorious Bettie Page is as incisive about unpacking those relationships as The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull.
But what makes Bettie Page singular is how it understands that expressing sexuality, being cognizant of the connections between body and soul, is both performance and freedom. Divine and profane. Fundamental to Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s work, especially in The Notorious Bettie Page, is exploring how bodies are ours, until they aren’t.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his work has been published in Slate, The Village Voice, and Esquire. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.