Monday, June 23, 2014

Archive: Mary Harron's Passion for "The Notorious Bettie Page"

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Archive: Mary Harron's Passion for The Notorious Bettie Page

(from 8/18/06)

I first discovered the fanaticism surrounding pin-up, '50s bondage queen, Bettie Page, in the early '80s when I spent time buying stills at Movie Star News on East 14th Street in New York City. It was run by Paula Klaw, who helped her late brother Irving photograph and film the gorgeous Page while she wore bondage gear and brandished whips. Always the business woman, Paula invariably pitched her Page photos and a bondage booklet to men who came into the store looking for eye-catching pin-ups. She did a booming business with Page.

My greatest memory is when two college age girls came across the booklet and one of the girls got completely excited over seeing many photos of a lovely girl tied to a chair. Perhaps the girl was sexually aroused by the pictures but I think it was more that she was making a connection to the bold and unique looking model with the mysterious, guiltless eyes. The other girl couldn't dissuade her from buying the booklet.

That was when I first realized Page's potential appeal to females. And that's why I wasn't surprised how her cult would grow among women for the next twenty-five years, and that eventually it would be a female who had became a Page fan who filmed her strange story. I took part in the following roundable with director-writer Mary Harron about her third film, "The Notorious Bettie Page," prior to the film's release. I note my questions.
Mary Harron

DP: I've always seen you as someone who make films that a male director might also want to do, but would make in a completely different, and probably objectionable way. Did you pick the story of Bettie Page because it would give you the chance to make a feminist film?

MH: I don't approach movies with an ideology or a message. I approach them with a perspective. I tell stories from a female point of view but that doesn't mean I'm trying to teach a lesson. I'm more interested in contradictions and things that raise questions that I can't always answer myself.
With Bettie, someone else may have done a story about the iconic sexual object, the glamour or whatever, but I I wanted to tell a story from a pin-up's point of view. What was her life like? I wanted to know what it was like for her. especially in regard to the banality of making images. (All women know about the creation of an image-it's a boring, behind-the scenes thing.)
I also wanted to make this film because I am very attracted to the world of the '50s, and interested in the sexuality of that time. What happens to beautiful girls, the young beauty queens, during that era?
My first step-mother was a Hollywood starlet for a few years and had tiny parts in a few movies, including Stanley Kubrick's first film. I'd grow up hearing her stories about what it was like to be so beautiful that you're plucked out of the crowd and have some fame and fortune, and then you find out that it's all over and it's time you go on with your normal life.

I was intrigued by the notion that how you look can transform your life for a few years. And also by-not '50s' low-life exactly, but the hidden world of the Irving and Paul Klaw (Jared Harris, Lili Taylor), who made the bondage films with Bettie. Most of all, I was very attached to Bettie's character. When I got to know her, I didn't want to let her go.

Q: Did you relate to her at all?

MH: Hmmm. I hate being photographed and as you can see in her photographs and films, she loved it, even more so when she took off her clothes. I am much more comfortable behind the camera. So in that sense, no. One thing that is similar: I would want to get on a bus and leave difficult situations. I totally relate to her doing that. I included a song by Patsy Cline, "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad."
I really relate to that view of life. So in that way I actually related to her religion and her religious search, even though I'm not a religious person, much less an evangelical Christian. I also responded to her being from Nashville. I used to write a lot about country music and I love Nashville.
Q: Did you get to talk to Bettie Page before you made the film?
MH: No, I didn't get a chance to talk to her at all. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The problem with an official biography of a living person is that it is limiting, in the sense: What will she say about it, what will they disapprove of? So you have a freer hand if you don't involve the subject. That said, there were certain things I would have liked to have asked her, not about being a pin-up but about religion in her life. She gave so many interviews over the years about being a pin-up, there's not much more she'd say.
But nobody asked her about her faith and I was interested in the course of that. I wanted to ask her about what happened to her after she had the experience in the church in Miami and found God. I would have liked to have talked to more about how she saw the world.
Q: Are you planning to show her the finished film?
MH: She already saw it, at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner and his three girlfriends. As you'd expect, it was a bit difficult. She liked Gretchen Mol a lot. She said, "I was never as pretty as that."
I don't think she enjoyed the scenes of the Senate hearings on pornography. I think that's still a source of discomfort. And she didn't like the use of the word Notorious in the title. She thinks it's critical, but it's not meant to be at all.
DP: In the movie, Bettie beams in front of the camera and says convincingly that she has no shame in what she does, but later she talks about having sinned.

MH: I think she went back and forth her whole life. Even today, she's still not sure. In my encounters with country music stars, I realized they were always Christian, whether they were getting divorced or having affairs or had amphetamine addictions. People don't stop being religious even when they're not towing the line.

I never thought that Bettie turned her back on religion or stopped being religious entirely when she was doing her nude modeling and bondage films. It was clear to me that she would have kept her belief in God all the way through. Ultimately, she decided to go back to it in a big way. She was born-again, but she had never stopped being religious to a large degree.

DP: Gretchen Mol told me that she thinks religion was a positive experience in Bettie's life, even though she'd go off the deep end at one point. What is your opinion on that?

MH: I think it was positive because it was a source of comfort to her. I don't think she had a religion that was puritanical or judgmental. We do know that she was in a Bible studies class and someone in there with her was interviewed and he didn't even know about her pin-up career. She wouldn't go around saying, "I was a scarlet woman, I was a pin-up who took off my clothes," which is the kind of thing people often do when they're born-again. I think it was more like, "That was then, this is now, I've moved on, into another place."
Q: Gretchen Mol is absolutely perfect as Bettie. Did you audition a lot of actresses for the role before her?

MH: Yes, we already had a lot of actresses come in and I'd looked at a lot of tapes. I began to think I'd never find someone to play her. There were a lot of great actresses who wanted the part, but they just didn't seem like Bettie. Many arrived wearing black leather and black wigs and would be vamping and trying to be very sexy. They all were trying so hard that they seemed to be straining, and it was hard to watch. But Gretchen seemed to be born to play it, as naturally as breathing. Great acting is never forced, and with her it was effortless. What happened as we moved forward was Gretchen and Bettie became superimposed in my mind. The actress started to define the character.

Q: Do you remember what scenes she did at her audition?
Gretchen Mol and Molly Harron

MH: She definitely did the scene where Bettie's in the woods with the photographer and saying, "Oh, I'll just take this top off." She did the scene in the coffee shop where Bettie talks about missing the scholarship to Vanderbilt. I saw that Gretchen could do the light, playful stuff but also could convey the melancholy and disappointment. In many ways it's a sad story.

Q: How did you find out about the gang rape that takes place offscreen in the film?
MH: Bettie talked about it in a radio interview, and it's been written about in books about her. It actually happened in New York, not Tennessee, but we switched the locations in the movie. After it happened, she returned to Nashville for a while and when that didn't work out, she went back to New York.
Q: How did that incident shape who she became?
MH: That's a very interesting question. Obviously it was a traumatic experience, and you'd think she'd never speak to a stranger again, but-and this is one of the surprising things about her life-- sometime later she's walking on the beach and an African-American named Jerry Tibbs approaches her and says, I'm an amateur photographer, can I take your picture," and she agrees. Despite what happened to her, she remained strangely open and happy to have new experiences, and wasn't a fearful or angry person.
DP: You show how uninhibited she was in front of the cameras but you never show her having sex. You have said elsewhere that she had an "invisible shield" around her and was remote with her husbands and boyfriends, so did you conclude that the sexual abuse from her father and that incident resulted her being inhibited in the bedroom?
MH: Her first husband Billy Neal (Norman Reedus), whom she remarried for a time, died a few years ago, but I was able to meet with him. He told me, "Oh, we had a very good sex life. That's what held us together." We were kind of thinking about '50s movies where you never actually saw anyone having sex. I think the focus on Bettie and her relationship with the camera precluded our showing sex. We thought it might have spoiled it.


DP: You make a big deal of Bettie waiting to testify before Estes Kefauver's Senate hearings on pornography. But why didn't he (David Strathairn) ever call her?

MH: Because he didn't really care what she had to say. He was after Irving Klaw and didn't think his star was important enough. Bettie Page wasn't famous.

DP: Most of your film is in black and white, but when Bettie goes to Florida, it's now in bright color. I read that you wanted those scenes to look like a Douglas Sirk film.
MH: It was completely instinctive. I always think of New York movies being in black and white, like my favorite movies, The Sweet Smell of Success or Pickup on South Street, so that's how I filmed New York in the '50s. I got to know Bettie in Florida through the beautiful color photographs that were taken of her by Bunny Yeager in Miami. So it seemed so wrong to do Florida in black and white.

Q: There are many parts of Bettie's life that aren't in your film. She was in Haiti and lived in San Francisco, and appeared in several off-Broadway shows and some movies like "Striparama" and "Teasearama".

MH: That she spent time in Haiti, where she says she rid of herself of racial prejudices, and San Francisco is interesting but not such a major part of her story where a low-budget film could afford to add scenes in two new locations. We recreated a whole section of "Teasearama", with Tempest Storm and other strippers, and the burlesque acts, and that was in the film for a long time. It was great but on the last day we realized that it didn't progress the essential story, which was: Bettie's life as a pin-up, Bettie and the Klaws, and the Senate hearings. She had small parts in three films, but they never advanced her career or changed the trajectory of her life.
DP: Did she have a mediocre life?

MH: No, I don't think so. Think of what she was brought up to do. She was brought up to stay on the farm. She did much more with her life.

DP: I've always thought of a strange triumvirate of cultural icons: Louise Brooks, Bettie Page, and Betty Boop. Three females whose images were "created" for men, but who were later embraced by women.

MH: Yes, yes. They all had those distinct haircuts which women have copied. Louise Brooks, like Bettie, was very contradictory.

DP: And she also virtually disappeared from the world for many years. These three touch nerves. You have talked about that in regard to Bettie Page.

MH: It's with modern girls. In the '50s she didn't have a huge following among women. Her celebrity and female following happened in the eighties and continues. Maybe it's post-Madonna. In the last twenty years, women have been dressing up in different costumes of femininity, depicting different types of sexuality, so they have found and responded to Bettie.

For instance, there have been "Bettie Page" nights at clubs, where women dress up as her and playfully whip each other. It's as silly as those movies are. If those had been really powerful S&M films Bettie was in, I don't think she'd have a cult following among young women. I think it's the silliness of them that makes women respond.
Q: You have a background in rock 'n' roll and punk, and you were a voice in Legs McNeil's book on the punk era, "Please Kill Me", so it's surprising...
MH: My next project is about all that. I didn't want to do a movie about the punk era, but I knew I'd get really annoyed if someone else did it.
Q: Is there anything less punk than a major motion picture about punk?
MH: No, but I don't think it will be a major motion picture. It will be low-budget. I wish I'd kept a diary of that period, so now it's going to have to be a middle-aged person looking back on her youth.
Bettie Page


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