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In telling the life of famous pin-up girl Bettie Page, director/co-writer Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) takes us on a provocative exploration of sexuality, religion and pop culture in the 1950s. Gretchen Mol stars as Bettie, who grew up in a conservative religious family in Tennessee and became a photo model sensation in New York. Bettie's legendary fetish poses made her the target of a Senate investigation into pornography, and transformed her into an erotic icon who continues to enthrall fans to this day. Co-starring Lili Taylor, Jonathan M. Woodward and David Strathairn.
 

  The Notorious Bettie Page

Over the years I talked to many people who had known Bettie Page, but the closer I got to her, the more she seemed to slip through my fingers. Among those encounters, two stand out. The first was with a retired army officer who had known Bettie in the 1950s and had recently been corresponding with her. Sam Green, the researcher on the project (later to gain fame as the director of The Weather Underground) urged me to contact “The Captain” when I was in London. It turned out he was living in retirement in Bath, an old spa town in the south of England.

When I got there the taxi dropped me in front of a magnificent 18th century terrace, and from the nameplate I found out that he was not a captain but a brigadier general. He turned out to be a lovely man, white haired with a rosy face and a bad leg. Though weakened by a serious illness he managed to show me a delightful afternoon in his antique-filled apartment, examining photos and memorabilia and pieces of lingerie.

“Look at these,” he said, showing me a pair of sheer-seamed black stockings imported from France. “I used to get them from a little place on Fifth Ave; they cost a fortune!” He showed me the special feature that made them so desirable: extra long stocking tops. A keen amateur photographer, he had started with the camera clubs but eventually graduated to private sessions, where he would bring lingerie for the girls to wear, including Bettie. Gloves he liked too. He showed me a pair of exquisite full-length kid gloves that he’d bought for his wife, who was sympathetic to his fetishes.

His face glowed as he talked about Bettie, about her sweetness, her naïveté, her genuineness: “a real country girl,” he said. Now they wrote to each other about illnesses, the pains and inconveniences of old age. “Back then she would never go out with me,” he explained sadly, but he felt protective of her and they were friends.

“I would marry her today,” he said, and it was clear that the General’s picture of Bettie was still of a girl in her 20s, more an idealized image than a real person. That afternoon left me wondering about the dilemma of the beauty queen. What must it be like for your face and body and physical presence to have such an intoxicating effect on others—what does it do to the person within? Does it leave a blankness inside, an absence, a feeling of disconnection? I thought of what Rita Hayworth said was the great problem of her life, that men would go to bed with a movie star and wake up with an ordinary woman. Bettie made such a vivid impression on so many men she met, but did any of them really know her?

Later I spent an afternoon with the man who probably knew her best, outside of her own family. Sam Green, co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner and I had gone to Nashville to check out Bettie’s early life. One afternoon we called on Billy Neal, her first boyfriend and first husband. His house was modest and immaculately clean and tidy; the worn linoleum in the kitchen shone and he kept the stove on because it was cold that day. Outside was a car with the sign “When the rapture comes, this car will be empty.” After Bettie became born again she went back to Nashville, and brought Billy back to Jesus. They married again, briefly and disastrously, but the religion stayed with him.

Billy met Bettie while they were still in high school. Back then he was rowdy, would get in fights on a Saturday night just for fun. He’d be dancing with Bettie, a guy would try cutting in and before you knew it the whole room had exploded. There were fights between them, too, because he was fiercely jealous. “But I never hit her with a closed fist” he said, by way of explanation.

Fifty years later you could still feel his bewilderment over Bettie. It was like a wound that never healed. It wasn’t just that she left him, although that in itself showed surprising nerve and independence for a woman of the 1950s with no money to fall back on. It was more than that. You felt she was still a mystery to him. For all their time together he had never really gotten close. That elusiveness, I decided, wasn’t just a problem in understanding her character: in a sense, it was her character. In the end I decided to embrace the mystery, because it was within Bettie’s contradictions that the essence of her character lay.