Bettie’s sexually abusive father calls to Bettie from the foot of the stairs.
Bettie pauses before ascending the staircase to the harsh beckoning of her father.
Because of the claustrophobic feel of the scene — the cramped space of the car intensified by the dim, shifting light — there can be no mistaking the malicious intent of Bettie’s abductor and his collaborators. As the scene unfolds, Page becomes increasingly nervous and agitated.
Bettie’s abductor, Scotty (Dallas Roberts), reveals his true intentions—his good-natured smile turned to vicious sneer.
Please! For the love of Jesus!”
Bettie quietly buttons up and regains her composure.
Bettie's acting teacher: “To want or need a mask to hide behind comes from a distrust of ourselves. It comes from our fear that we ourselves are boring."
In a quick decisive moment, Bettie turns in the chair and starts to remove her stockings and shoes.
Harron never lets us forget that Bettie has an audience.
Bettie drops her head, closes her eyes, sighs deeply and flips back her hair before she begins to unbutton her top.
John Willie: And you a prude?
John Willie: Do you mind if I ask you a question, Bettie? What do you think Jesus would say about what you’re doing now?
“God gave me the talent to pose for pictures and it seems to make people happy. Well that can’t be a bad thing, can it?”
Placing Page in the background of the courthouse as Irving and Paula Klaw discuss the future of Movie Star News, suggests that Bettie’s decision to quit modeling is a direct result of the hearings.
Bettie is relegated to the role of wife. Notice how this shot frames Page at the edge, with all focus directed away from her instead of toward her.
Page never really stopped being a Christian — and held herself to a high moral standard. She is nevertheless “saved” and devotes the remainder of her life to the service of the Lord.
While Bettie retains her black bangs, her appearance is otherwise rehabilitated.
From bondage queen to street preacher.
Even though Irving directed her to burn everything, Paula saved (and hid) a sizeable portion of their work. Much of what still exists is the result of Paula’s inability to simply burn it all.
While most of the film is in black and white, the sequences involving Bunny Yeager appear in lush color reminiscent of early Technicolor. Sarah Paulson portrays Yeager with an air of confidence and professionalism.
The commentary track for The Notorious Bettie Page, where Harron, co-writer Guinevere Turner, and Gretchen Mol (the actress who portrays Bettie Page) discuss the film, reveals a shorthand with which they discuss the "real" Bettie. [open endnotes in new window] Much of their commentary centers on a thorough understanding culled from available materials on Page’s life. Harron and Turner admit to not being able to secure an actual meeting with the real Bettie Page (who was in her 80s when the film went into production), but the “Betty Boom” of the 1980s and 1990s had generated a wide range of information about Page, from her authorized biography, The Life of a Pin-Up Legend (1996), to an unauthorized expose, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pinups (1997), and an E! True Hollywood Story episode (1997). The tone of their conversation is congenial and knowledgeable, but it still tends to cast much of Page's life into a familiar shorthand commensurate with a Bettie Page mythology. This is not surprising given the nature of biography and myth-making. Even a cursory survey of the literature available about Page reveals common, oft-repeated stories—her sexually abusive father giving her dimes for hush money, her almost child-like good-naturedness, the ease with which she disrobed and posed for a multitude of male photographers, her reasons for disappearing from the modeling scene in 1957.
Near the end of their commentary track, Guinevere Turner comments that Bettie "is whatever people want her to be... There is something blank in Bettie." Writing from an understanding of Page as a cipher, as having the ability to become whatever is required of her, reveals Harron’s and Turner’s Bettie as a blank page for appropriation. That this is a "true" quality of the real Bettie Page is irrelevant; however, the ease with which Harron and Turner appropriate Bettie does lend a certain credibility to this blankness. Ultimately, this interpretation serves to further couch “Bettie Page” within a multivalent feminist discourse of sexual revolution, liberation, and female independence that changes her into the “notorious” Bettie Page.
Two scenes in particular serve to illustrate Harron’s feminist appropriation of “Bettie Page”; both scenes involve sexual abuse. The first sequence occurs early in the film and reveals in a scant fifteen seconds the sexual abuse perpetrated by Roy Page (Jack Gilpin). The film quickly moves on to the next scene, leaving very little time for the audience to ruminate on what happens off camera.
This "event" corresponds with accounts of the historical Bettie Page. Betty Mae Page was born on April 22, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee, the second child of Walter Roy Page and Edna Mae Pirtle. She grew up poor and was never particularly happy at home. Roy Page was a mechanic and a womanizer; when Page was thirteen he began sexually abusing her. According to Richard Foster’s unauthorized biography, The Real Bettie Page, Roy “[traded] her dimes for the cowboy movies in exchange for her silence.” A naïve Bettie allowed herself to be taken advantage of and, in her authorized biography, she claims “‘I probably would have done anything just to go see cowboy movies.’” She dreamed of escaping her poor and abusive home to become a movie star and, as represented by these accounts, Page’s longing for stardom is inextricably linked to sexual trauma.
Despite Harron’s short treatment of this trauma, it is affective and is carefully positioned within the film’s larger narrative structure. As Harron notes in the commentary, the goal of the scene was to refer to the trauma
Harron is clearly cognizant of evoking tropes of victimization—and she works (by her account) to downplay such associations.
A second, longer sequence further illustrates the difficulty of representing sexual trauma without turning to a teleology of victimization. Shortly after Page meets, marries, then leaves her first husband, Billy Neal, the audience witnesses Page being lured into a gang rape scenario. Enticed under the pretense of dancing, Bettie is driven to a dark, seemingly abandoned locale, where Scotty (Dallas Roberts), her abductor has arranged for a group of paying men to take turns victimizing Page. To “save" herself, Page tells the men that she has her period. This ploy only refocuses her attackers: “Well,” her abductor concludes, “she’ll have to give us some kind of a satisfaction.”
Like the sequence with her father, the audience is removed from the actual transgression and, after a short sequence of Page “buttoning up,” Harron quickly shifts focus away from them—preventing extended reflection. In commentary over this scene, Harron and Mol (Bettie Page) discuss how painful it was to work through these scenes. Harron again notes, that she "wanted to suggest terrible things happening but not show everything that was going to happen." This, she claims, was an attempt to film "in the style of the 50's movie [where] the worst things always happen off camera." This invocation of fifties cinematic tropes is telling since, as Harron comments earlier, "we wanted to make [the film] more about New York in the fifties" than a psychological character study of Bettie Page.
Harron takes liberty with the historical accuracy of this event. While Bettie Page does relate in interview that she was gang raped—and that she did tell the assailants that she was on her period—the event didn't occur in Nashville. It actually occurred on Bettie's first trip to New York in 1947. This subtle shift may seem innocuous, but it does illustrate the careful plotting of the script to make "real" events fit the overall narrative arc of the film. Placing this sequence in Nashville creates a division that allows for the audience to disassociate New York from the crimes inflicted on Page. Harron’s Page moves from the dysfunctional, abusive Nashville and lands in an accepting New York where she is free to be herself and exhibit her sexuality free of trauma and abuse.
Regarding the gang rape sequence, we are left with an understanding of Page not so much as victim but as survivor. This perspective is enhanced by the follow-up sequence of Bettie emerging from the woods after the event. Harron notes in the commentary, "we needed a scene of her aftermath." What's telling about this "need" is that by inserting this aftermath sequence—which was not originally part of the film—Harron frames the traumatic event in precise, cinematic terms. Without the aftermath scene, the audience would be denied a sense of closure to the scene; with the sequence, the audience is allowed to settle into a more traditional reading of the narrative within a teleology of rape survival rather than one of mere victimization.
This is essential to navigating appropriations of Bettie Page because in almost all (positive) accounts of Page, we are led to believe that she was (is) never to be read as "victim." In commentary, as the credits role, Harron, Turner, and Mol all chime in to assert that "Bettie was no victim." This echoes the sanitized view of Bettie presented throughout her authorized biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend. Others, like comics artist Dave Stevens, who became a friend to Bettie later in life, photographer Bunny Yeager, and artist Jim Silke, are quick to defend Page. Silke goes out of his way to cast Bettie in a decidedly "survivor" role:
Harron and company are quick to note that they do not want their audience to perceive the inclusion of these events (including the abuse by Roy Page) as directly related to tales of moral downfall. By not "hammering it," to use Harron's phrase, Notorious eschews easy labeling. Furthermore, Harron and Mol (as she describes her acting in the aftermath scene) make it very clear that what is being presented on Mol's (Page's) face is not positive strength so much as Bettie "buttoning up" and moving on—as a very "fifties way of dealing with things."
However, in light of conflicting contemporary feminisms—especially popular threads of anti-feminist postfeminism, what Martin terms “pop feminism”—it is hard to not read this sequence as indicative of the independence achieved by victimized women in post-1980s rape narratives. Sarah Projansky notes, the
Women in films like Trial By Jury (1994) and Rob Roy (1995) “[respond] to rape by becoming stronger.”
Similarly, Martin reveals that erotic thrillers—straight to video and soft-core films marketed to women—“limit sexual exploration through a system of dangers and punishments.” “The feminist values of economic and emotional independence,” Martin points out, “are always accompanied by danger and murder” within the erotic thriller genre. While Projansky’s and Martin’s observations are directed at genre films far removed from The Notorious Bettie Page, their points do suggest transferable tropes. Martin aptly notes, “sexual pleasure cannot be easily defined by feminist politics or normative gender identity.” That a significant amount of film has linked female sexual identity and independence to the narrative tropes of rape, danger, and even murder, suggests that a de-linking is nearly impossible.
Mol's and Harron's insistence that Page "buttons" up her emotions—which is further enforced by the fact that Page never mentions this incident to anyone (until she is interviewed in her seventies)—can be read within the teleology of victimization and survivalism presented in the films discussed by Projansky. These films, she notes,
Projansky specifically cites Rob Roy and Mary’s (Jessica Lange) pulling away from Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) after she is raped by Cunningham (Tim Roth) as signs of her victimization and its affect on her sexuality.
The same can be posited for Harron's handling of Page's abuse. By not saying anything, by internalizing her trauma, Bettie becomes credible as an independent, though sexually damaged, woman. This notion—that rape is necessary for independence—is very troubling. As Projansky concludes,
Here again, though Harron attempts to downplay the implications of Page's abuse as morality play, they do slide into the murky water of postfeminist discourse that posits rape as facilitating.
In the DVD commentary, Harron reveals that the scene of Page emerging from the forest was not originally part of the script; its addition was suggested by her film director husband, John Walsh. This simple suggestion illustrates the difficulty of maintaining the film’s feminist agenda. Harron confesses that, prior to the addition, the scene was not working; she was unable to determine why it didn’t work. By injecting the short aftermath sequence into the narrative, Harron subtly alters the trajectory of Page’s signification, pulling it back onto a familiar narrative track despite the film’s attempts to destabilize such narrative coding. Instead of this sequence reading in a more confounding way—as disruptive—it slides into victimization and survivalism narratives.
Except this is not entirely true. Despite the difficulties of representing sexual trauma in narrative, Harron’s film decidedly breaks away from this teleology of victimization. This becomes clear when looking closely at one of the most affecting scenes in the film. Shortly after Bettie Page is shown entering into the world of camera clubs and pin-up photography, Harron presents us with a scene where Bettie Page participates in an acting exercise at the "GP Acting Studio." Bettie’s acting teacher directs her to the stage and asks her to "recreate two minutes of ordinary life… when we're alone." Bettie’s response to this direction is compelling. After a few furtive moments, Bettie begins removing her clothes. We learn from commentary that this sequence was not part of the original script. It was only added after Turner and Harron interviewed one of Bettie’s acting classmates (who was also a former boyfriend). He explained to Turner and Harron that the disrobing portrayed in the film actually happened on more than one occasion.
We might be tempted to cast this sequence into a contiguous survival tale. Building on the earlier sexual trauma sequences, Bettie’s performance here might serves as sign of trauma (similar to Mary’s pulling away from Rob Roy). This reading would view the freedom with which Bettie disrobes as symptomatic. Such a reading, however, keeps us from seeing the subversive power of the scene. Instead of reading the sequence within a teleology of victimhood, Harron encourages us to read Bettie's performance as a moment of transcendence.
When Bettie's acting teacher prefaces the exercise, he tells his class, “To want or need a mask to hide behind comes from a distrust of ourselves.” Bettie’s initial hesitance on the stage illustrates her sense of distrust. However, when she commits to the scene, to recreating two minutes of ordinary life alone, she removes the mask. Open to the moment, Bettie transcends to a place where her sexuality "frees" her. Close inspection of Bettie’s face reveals the exact moment of her transition from anxiety to confidence, the point where she closes her eyes and fully commits to the scene. As observed later in the film, when Bettie completely disrobes for the camera club photographer, there is no evidence of anxiety, no hesitation, no fear. When Bettie is naked, she is most free and self-possessed.
Harron's representation of Page, then, not only falls in line with narratives that recall Bettie being completely at ease and confident when posing—both with clothes and without—but it also falls in line with Buszek's assertion that
This reclaiming of sexual imagery as a progressive alternative to antifeminist postfeminists who cannot reconcile feminism with sexuality is a quintessentially third wave feminist move.
Harron’s explicit identification as a feminist, as well as her interest in Valerie Solanas, links her to second wave feminism; and Notorious, by pedigree, is also deeply connected to the second wave. However, Notorious more closely aligns with Stephanie Genz and Benjamin A. Brabon’s observation about later articulations of feminist concerns:
By taking as its primary subject the queen of fifties pin-ups, a woman who was a product of Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, Harron’s film appropriates postwar sexuality and rewrites it within this matrix of contradiction and diversity.
Buszek notes that
Postwar representations of femininity, then, reveal the pervasiveness of the mystique. While suburban women were fed a steady diet of patriarchal rhetoric through women’s magazines, men were treated to images (in men’s magazines, pin-ups, and cheesecake) reflective of this same rhetoric. The historical Bettie Page was not only a living woman caught within this trap of postwar femininity but her images were likewise representative of these postwar ideologies. Working at a time when sexualized images of women were extremely profitable, and often publicly contested, Page was willing agent and cipher, an object for consumption and a willing subject. Though Page did, as Buszek claims, offer a variety of "complex, pluralistic pin-ups" that challenged and/or subverted postwar definitions of femininity, the culture that consumed them, steeped in the tenets of the feminine mystique, was perfectly free to view them simply as cheesecake.
This oscillation between conventional representation and subversive alternative is the ground on which Harron creates a “notorious” Bettie Page. Harron and Turner offer a Page who embraces the contradictions of postwar femininity and bridges the gap between exploitative sexual imagery and imagery disruptive of patriarchy. While the “real” Bettie Page was a woman who wrestled with the tenets of the feminine mystique, was and is viewed as sexual pioneer and nostalgic artifact, the “notorious” Bettie Page embraces these contradictions in a productive way that draws our attention to the dangers and affordances of female sexual signification and prompts deep reflection of the space between consumption and critique.
“What do you think Jesus would say?”
In one of the most bizarre sequences of Notorious, Bettie Page is seen trussed up against a wall with a ball gag in her mouth being photographed by John Willie (Jared Harris). The scene is not bizarre because of Page’s predicament—the audience has already witnessed Bettie being photographed in a variety of bondage and discipline scenarios. What is notable is that Bettie takes offense to Willie singing an off-color song. In the conversation that ensues (after Willie loosens the gag in her mouth so she can speak), the photographer is surprised to discover Bettie is a devout Christian with deep religious conviction.
The “real” Bettie Page was a raised to be a God-fearing Christian, and by most accounts she lived a good Christian life. Page’s response to Willie in Notorious is a close approximation of how Page is said to have viewed the schism between her conservative, Christian sensibility and her more outrageous modeling. When Willie asks her, “What do you think Jesus would say about what you’re doing now?” Bettie responds, “I think God has given each of us some kind of talent and he wants us to use it.” The “real” Bettie Page spent much of her life struggling to find an outlet for her talents: After finishing college, she tried being a teacher, a homemaker, a secretary—the three primary avenues open to women in postwar United States. None of these spoke to her God-given talent(s); her modeling provided her success and fulfillment these other career paths were unable to supply.
Harron’s film supports this reading. The “notorious” Bettie Page is devout and sexually liberated. She finds nothing wrong with her modeling and is only occasionally troubled by what Jesus, or God, might think about her chosen profession. That is, until she is summoned to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Herron’s placing Page in the background of the courthouse as Irving and Paula Klaw discuss the future of Movie Star News, suggests that Bettie’s decision to quit modeling is a direct result of what she witnesses; it is a “sign” that God might not be happy with what she’s been doing. The Notorious Bettie Page’s coda supports this reading by glossing over of the events after the Senate hearings. Page moves to Miami, marries a young man named Armand (Alejandro Chabán), settles uneasily into a life outside the camera frame, and finally becomes a born again Christian. Notorious ends with a conservatively dressed Page wearing a crucifix and preaching from an open Bible to passers-by in a nameless wood.
This presentation of Page reinforces her “goodness” and independence, allowing the audience to conclude that modeling was always Bettie’s choice, her decision to “use her talent” in a productive and fulfilling way. Harron’s use of the Senate Subcommittee hearings suggests (like the outdoor camera club scene) that the problem was the social climate of the fifties, one ill-equipped to tolerate the female sexuality represented in Bettie’s bondage photos. This reading is reinforced by Paula Klaw’s frustration with Irving who insists they destroy all their negatives. Even as she sets fire to her life’s work, Paula gazes longingly at the images, shoving a few into her pockets despite her brother’s insistence.
By presenting the Senate Subcommittee hearings in this way—juxtaposed with Bettie’s concerns about God and Paula’s conviction that there is nothing wrong with the work she has produced—Harron illuminates and interrogates the odd schism in postwar sexual iconography. Page’s popularity as a model was commensurate with the fifties’ obsession with pin-up photography. Men’s magazines proliferated in the postwar era, and the “sex” sold by Hollywood and Hugh Hefner was not at all taboo. In fact, as Jane Gaines has pointed out, its consumption was actively encouraged. What was not tolerated was the seemingly dangerous and “obscene” bondage materials produced by the Klaws. As Harron shows us in Notorious, the Senate Subcommittee hearings sought to blame juvenile delinquency—even a rash of teenage suicides—on the bondage and discipline scenarios sold by Movie Star News. What this friction between the acceptable objectification of cheesecake and the unacceptable fetishism of bondage photos indicated was a disruption and disintegration of conservative sexual mores. As Gaines points out, sexuality is very much a matter of social convention; it serves, recalling Foucault, disciplinary and regulatory functions.
What Notorious demonstrates, however, is how this regulatory function was, in fact, constantly subverted by the very culture that sought to suppress dysfunctional forms of sexuality. Cross-dressing female camera club photographers and born-again bondage models offer subversive ruptures in the larger narrative that would cite fetishism and a confident, open female sexuality as aberrant and in need of suppression. What’s more, two of the film’s most independent and confident characters are women: photographers Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) and Paula Klaw.
Lili Taylor’s performance of Klaw is honest, open, and down-to-earth. As the photographer of many of Bettie’s film loops and bondage scenarios, Klaw is a consummate professional. As she tells Bettie during her first photo shoot,
The real Paula Klaw is cited in Bettie Page’s authorized biography as being very protective of her models, often taking control of tying and securing the ropes, trusses, and other bondage implements so her models would not be hurt.
Bunny Yeager is also a positive force of patriarchal disruption in the film. Yeager, a former model, achieved success as a glamour photographer and was responsible for the iconic Playboy centerfold of Bettie trimming a Christmas tree wearing only a Santa hat. Her approach to Page in the film is noticeably different than that of Bettie’s male photographers. When Bettie visits Yeager’s home for the first time, she brings along a suitcase of outfits for posing, including high heels and a black corset. Yeager responds to the corset with a dismissive, “I believe the female form can stand on its own.” Later, in a photo shoot on the beach, Yeager notes in a voice-over, “Yes, she’s been shot by just about every photographer in the country, but I think I caught something special in her personality when I photographed Bettie Page.” This something special, the film suggests, is the result of Yeager’s subject position. As a woman, as a former model, she has taken control of the objectifying gaze by stepping behind the camera; by wielding the apparatus of the gaze, Yeager is able to refocus that gaze and capture something “special.”
The real Bunny Yeager produced some of the most memorable (and appropriated) images of Bettie Page; she was not alone, however, in thinking that she captured something “special” in her photographs of Page. Most photographers found something special in the real Bettie Page, something inherently photographable. Buszek, notes,
It is this constructedness, this performativity that is key to understanding the signifying power of multiple representations of Bettie Page.
That Bettie Page could be, as Turner notes, ”whatever people want her to be,” that she could so easily “shift gears within a spectrum of extreme sexual roles,” makes her image and persona now—as icon, cult figure, film subject—infinitely appropriable. For Harron, Page is a perfect subject not just to admire and recreate faithfully out of respect; she is a figure capable of presenting a multivalent, third wave female sexuality. By filming a “notorious Bettie Page,” Harron “exposes the very construction” of representational female sexuality, “revealing both its artificiality and performative nature.” But, more importantly, Harron’s film presents a complex female sexuality, one which supports Buszek’s reading of the pin-up’s “potential as an expressive medium for women.”
The juxtaposition of clothed Bettie Page sitting silently, nervously on an empty stage with a fully nude Gretchen Mol (as Bettie Page) at ease, standing in the wilderness perfectly encapsulates a third wave feminist
Much like the way Page was able to reveal the artificial and performative nature of the pin-up, Harron is able to disrupt “the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions” by reflexively appropriating and rewriting those conventions through a “notorious” Bettie Page. These two scenes represent the tension between relying on convention and disrupting it.
Rhetorician Sharon Crowley notes,
It is these metonymic historical associations that make any and all representations of female sexuality difficult to reclaim or disrupt. As Crowley suggests,
This ideological conundrum—how to move beyond, deny, or reclaim ideological connections—is at the heart of The Notorious Bettie Page. This is not a question of how to disavow or remake the past so much as it is managing the multiple, often conflicting, ideological associations built into representations of female sexuality. It is the ideological nature of sexual representation that makes it such a difficult subject to navigate as a feminist artist. It is also what makes The Notorious Bettie Page such an achievement. Filming a subject of rare cult and sexual icon status, with origins in postwar femininity and intrinsically tied to second wave feminism—a subject co-opted by postfeminist ideologies and third wave feminists alike—is no easy feat. Returning one last time to Gretchen Mol in the forest, it becomes even clearer just how disruptive Harron’s film is. In that moment of contentment, we must remember that Page felt completely free in front of a man with a camera.