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t took Mary Harron fourteen years to make her lush biopic about pin-up queen Bettie Page, which opens in April. Thanks to alternating black-and-white film stock and oversaturated color film, as well as old-school wipe effects, The Notorious Bettie Page has the lurid, appealing texture of a '50s tabloid. There's not a lot of actual sex in the film, which follows Bettie Page from high school through the end of her modeling career in 1957, but there's plenty of sex suggested in the poses Page strikes, sometimes topless, as she becomes the most famous pin-up in the country. Even as she endures a series of mediocre romantic relationships, Page hypnotizes the men and women who photograph her, and clearly relishes being looked at. Unspeakably hot, Bettie was a mass of contradictions: she loved posing naked, but was deeply religious; she was well-mannered and longed to get married but became infamous as the age's leading bad girl. We spoke with the Harron, who was born in 1956, about the surprisingly demure side of her sexpot heroine. — Ada Calhoun
What drew you to Bettie? She's very different from your previous protagonists, Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). She's so . . . friendly.
Bettie came from Nashville and grew up in a religious culture that would always have been part of her. There's the paradoxical nature of these photographs. They were so banal — they all look like they're photographed in hotel rooms with odd '50s tables and lamps — and at the same time they were sort of sinister, and very comic.
Even in the craziest bondage get-ups, Gretchen Mol's Bettie just seems so radiantly happy.
I think that's true of Bettie. You can't really understand her without that as her dominant motivating force. That she was someone who got such joy out of being photographed. I guess we'd call it "exhibitionist," but it's that seems sort of pejorative.
Why did it take you fourteen years to make this movie?
Initially I was thinking of doing this as a short film, like twenty minutes, almost as a way of preparing for my first movie. After I met Guin [Turner, Harron's collaborator], we started talking about working on it together to make it longer, like a forty-five or fifty-minute film. And at that point I was already writing my first film. And then Warhol came out we started working on it again and it was going to be for HBO. Then we started thinking about it as a feature film, but it was just a very hard thing to get right. Her character's very elusive. I liked the fact that there was this mystery in her and I felt that in all the years I spent researching it there was always an absence at the center of her. It sounds kind of pretentious, but I think of the film like a little poem or song. The original title was The Ballad of Bettie Page.
I heard you were involved with This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
I haven't seen it seen it but I'm in it because we had a big censorship battle over American Psycho. I thought we might have one on this but it seems that we don't. It's getting an R rating,
thank God. n°
Did you meet with Page in the course of doing this?
No, I didn't. Very early on, Sam Green, who had the original idea and was doing the research, Guin Turner, the co-writer, and I all went to Nashville. We met with Bettie's brother, Jack, and were building toward meeting with her. Then this lawyer who was representing her at the time turned against the project and sold the rights to her life to someone else.
Was it to Bettie Page: Dark Angel?
No, it was a project that actually never happened. But still we were forbidden from ever talking to her, which is a shame. We met with her husband, Billy Neal. Paula Klaw [the photographer who shot and distributed many Bettie Page bondage images] we were luckily able to interview several time before she died. And Bunny Yeager [the photographer who shot Page for Playboy]. I never met Valerie Solanas either. Doing a composite portrait I think you need to accept that in the end it's just going to be your version of her.
Did you encounter Bettie Page fan clubs?
Yes, we had Greg Theakston as a consultant. He started the Bettie Pages.
Why didn't you include the second half of her life? According to Richard Foster's biography, she tried to kill a few people, landed in a mental hospital and was declared schizophrenic.
We actually optioned that book. It came out right in the middle of writing the screenplay, after we'd been on it for a couple years. I wanted to make sure that we had access to that material. Also I didn't want anyone else to make a film based on it. We tried to include some of it, and that's one of the reasons why the script took so long. A couple of years were lost trying to incorporate the things in the book about her later years. But I found that it just didn't work. To show those breakdowns that happened we'd have to cover about fifteen years of bleak decline, go into really great detail about how this sort of bubbly girl in the '50s broke down so badly.
Fans of her pin-ups might not know how deeply religious she was.
Yes, the idea that she was against the established order was not true at all. I think her preferred path in life would have been to get married and have kids — all along she thought that was what she should be doing. She was God-fearing and well behaved, even though she had this bohemian streak. She liked to stay up all night watching movies and to drop everything and get on a bus and go somewhere, and she did walk out of that first marriage. Also, Bettie grew up poor and religion held this idea of coming home, that life is a vale of tears and heaven is a place of rest and comfort.
We think of the '50s as such a puritanical time, but the smut probe you feature seems awfully familiar. Were you deliberately playing up a comparison between then and now?
All the dialogue in those scenes is from the actual Senate transcripts. I loved the Senate hearings. I would read them for hours. They're so fascinating. What really came across was the absolute bewilderment everybody had about sex in the '50s. Part of it is the Puritanism that's so deep in American society. It's such a sex-obsessed culture but also so fearful of the unknown. A lot of those fears gravitate to the same place: the effect on our youth. Those smut hearings grew out of hearings into juvenile delinquency, which was a big fear in the '50s. Now, of course, it's "What's the internet doing to our kids?" Every decade there's a new fear: rock music, videos, rap. In those days it was comic books and pin-up magazines. There's still idea that one image passed around will create a virus, an infection that will undermine society.
Today it's all about how internet porn is more addictive than crack.
We're no longer as naïve about fetishism, but the terms of the debate really haven't changed at all, the way things are framed and the sort of scaremongering. You can take portions of those Senate hearings and say they happened this year and nobody would be surprised.
Do you follow the neo-burlesque movement?
I love the neo-burlesque stuff. I like the way it's being taken up again as an art form. Clearly Bettie is a very inspiring figure to young women because she had a strong independent streak. She did what she wanted to do and she wasn't just doing it for men. I think the fact that she enjoyed posing so much is what gives her this inner glow. You don't feel like she just wanted to be liked. But I think it's a huge mistake to think of her as a conscious feminist heroine. As far as I can see, she didn't have an agenda, ever. She just followed her own path unconsciously. I don't think she thought of herself as a rebel in any way. She was kind of in her own world of dress-up.