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.

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I'll put it this way: Bettie Page was the Garbo of bondage movies. And you will say that the comparison is odious. For a start, Garbo played Camille and Ninotchka and Anna Karenina, while Bettie played Bettie — or, as it was usually spelled then, Betty (but nobody calls her Page) — in 5 min., 8mm epics with titles like Betty's Clown Dance and Dominant Betty Dances With Whip. Garbo, in Hollywood, had Irving Thalberg, the prince of MGM, as her boss and protector. Bettie had Irving Klaw, "King of the Pinups," who ran, with his sister Paula, a seedy Manhattan emporium called Movie Star News, which peddled celebrity glamour shots to the public and specialized photos and loops to a more discriminating clientele. A brunette Betty Grable type who wanted to be Bette Davis, Bettie couldn't get a job as a Broadway actress. But on East 14th Street she was the star of Movie Star News, the big fish in a little, brackish pond.

All right, here's the thing. What Garbo and Bettie both had was It — a radiance, a mystery of personality, that defies technique and passeth understanding. Garbo's allure was mature and fatalistic; reducing men to boys, this ageless beauty dragged them toher doom. In a medium designed to make people feel good, she wrapped herself in the crepe of tragedy. This death-loving regality, stern but sexy, made her seem a creature from another, higher species — the anti-Hollywood star, and thus its weirdest and, I'd say, greatest.

Bettie, too, had a magic, a message, that defied her medium. The dance films she did may have been cheesy documents of bump-and-grind; the bondage films, creepy if genteel invocations of sadomasochism. But what everyone remembers about Bettie, aside from her trademark bangs, is her smile. Guileless and guiltless, it conveyed an Edenic sensuality: how lovely it must have been in the Garden, before the fall. Bettie's erotic energy, writer Harlan Ellison sagely notes, was "absolutely untouched by human depravity." To her fans and her official detractors, who might have agreed that sex was dirty, Bettie's giddy energy said, heck, no, it's fun! Can't you see that, in my unforced, kewpie-doll grin, in every free and frantic move of my arms and hips? It was as natural as breathing to her. Or at least that's what her personality — I'm going to call it her art — expressed on film.

One last detail shared by Garbo and Bettie. Each retired in her mid-30s, preserving the movie image of her youthful allure. But unlike Garbo, who was often cornered by paparazzi in her Manhattan neighborhood, Bettie seemingly did disappear. As Buck Henry wrote in Playboy in 1992, when Bettie-mania was coming to full flourish, "The story itself is banal: She came, she failed utterly to achieve her dream, she split." There is no known moving-picture evidence of her after 1957. Whereas Garbo left California for New York, Bettie left New York for Miami, where she modeled for a few more years, then vanished, reemerging in Southern California in 1992.

In the decades of her silence, all manner of rumors spread. She had run afoul of the Mob. She became a nun. She had kids and grandkids. She was dead. All these speculations were wrong though the truth, as revealed in Robert Foster's sympathetic and scrupulous book, is even stranger. We'll get to that later. But, rest assured, the pinup girl is not dead. She still resides near Los Angeles. And Saturday she celebrated her 83rd birthday.

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