In a world where hardcore porn is just a mouse click away, it’s hard to believe that Chastised In High Heels and Fearful Ordeal In Restraint Land were once considered shocking. Viewers of these illicit shorts risked shame and censure for the satisfaction of seeing busty star Bettie Page brandish a whip or get trussed up like a chicken. Tame by current standards, they were enough for her to be demonised as a cause of juvenile delinquency and a threat to everything ’50s America held dear.
Subsequent generations would reclaim Page as a proto-feminist striking a blow for free speech. The way Mary Harron’s biopic tells it, though, she was merely a devout Southern belle who had no problem showing her bits to anybody who asked nicely. By colluding in her own exploitation, Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner argue, Bettie controlled her image and how it was enjoyed. What seemed decadent filth to some, she saw as just another acting gig – albeit one involving ball-gags and 14-inch stilettos.
Naïve is one word to describe this; a better one is pure. Bettie may be ignorant of the effect pornography can have on its practitioners and consumers, but it proves blissful. “Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden,” she says, “when they sinned they put on clothes.” There’s a curiously touching strength to this idea, a belief that beauty can be appreciated without becoming consumed by lust. Key to making this convincing is Mol, whose Bettie radiates warmth, joy and vivacity. Without any emotional showboating she gives the character heart, while somehow maintaining an uncontrived innocence, whether in boots, basque or the buff.
No one in Harron’s picture is mocked or caricatured, whether pro or anti-porn or somewhere in between, and while the lack of invective may make the title somewhat hyperbolic, that’s rather the point: Bettie is an individual, not just an icon; a human, not just a headline. Much more than simply notorious.