The Garbo of Bondage

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Gretchen Mol stars as Betty Page in "The Notorious Bettie Page" which is set to be in theatres on April 14, 2006.

Fifty years after the fact, she has earned pop-cultural icon status. There are a dozen books about her, and a half-dozen movies, including a new bio-pic, The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol. Not to mention countless websites and, right now, nearly 1,600 products for sale on eBay. (Alfred Einstein has only 309.) For just $9.99 you can get a Large Bettie Page Red Whip Cloth Wall Banner; for $6.99, a Bettie Page Don't Tread on Me Metal Candle Tin & Candle, which "features an image of Bettie Page in red lingerie and licking a whip." Who'll bid $19.99 for the Bettie Page Retro Cincher Corset Lot? ("Bring out your inner Bettie!") Or a Bettie Page wristwatch "and the band is made of genuine leather." It'd better be.

Today, when an heiress can become a household name by making a porn video, everyone's famous and nobody's shocked. And when consumers aren't gobbling up the latest embarrassments of modern stars, they search the past for artists who were pariahs then, suitable for veneration now. Thus the hierarchy is upended. Novelists lauded in the '50s are forgotten now (don't expect a Sloan Wilson or James Gould Cozzens revival any time soon), while writers who were published only in cheap paperbacks (Jim Thompson) are heroes. Producer Stanley Kramer was the social conscience of Hollywood; yet his films receive little attention now (and if they do, it's dismissive), while Ed Wood gets a Tim Burton hagiography starring Johnny Depp.

In a way, Bettie Page was to '50s movie stars what Edward D. Wood Jr. was to '50s directors. With two differences. One: she had talent, he didn't. Two: Wood's cluelesss movies played in theaters; Bettie's were sold under the counter, mailed in plain brown wrappers. Yet she has been elevated to pulp goddess. The beatification process began in 1980, when artist Dave Stevens created a Bettie character in his graphic novel The Rocketeer. Jennifer Connelly gave her full-figured life in the 1990 movie version, and the cult was under way. A talking Bettie Page tattoo (voiced by Jodie Foster) anchored an episode of The X Files. Robert Foster, in his book The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups, wonders when the retro celeb will get her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's about time.

But being a bondage babe wasn't much of a distinction to the mass audience of the '50s, who didn't know Bettie Page existed. If she'd had even a little mainstream fame, Estes Kefauver, who chaired a Senate investigation into the movies she starred in, would surely have called her to the witness stand, to gain tabloid headlines from the exposure of Bettie's lurid luster. Instead, while her producer defended his films ("But there's no nudity!") and psychiatrists attacked them, she sat outside the hearing room for 16 hours, ignored.

Back then, Bettie Page was caviar only to the purchasers of girlie mags, tatty titles like Titter, Whisper and Wink, where she was the preeminent pinup queen of her day, maybe any day. (She was also the 13th model to grace the centerfold of a new slick magazine called Playboy.) As a movie actress she had a different appeal, limited but intense. Bettie was rich Corinthian leather to connoisseurs of specialized, and at the time subterranean, erotica — the kind that showed women, dressed in black undergarments and stockings, and pumps with six-inch heels, getting spanked, trussed and gagged. But primly. This was the '50s. And primitively. No retakes; no expert lighting; no dialogue — no sound. Just the girls. Rather, the girl. The Girl in the Leopard Print Bikini, as she was dubbed. Satan's Angel. Bettie Page.

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