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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Born April 22, 1923, in Nashville, to a strictly Christian family, Bettie May Page was, by all outward signs, not the the tattered rag doll of movie-star legend, at least of the Marilyn Monroe stripe. Sunny and popular, she was a member of the high school debating team, appeared in theatricals and co-edited the literary magazine. Her grades (second highest average in the class) earned her salutatorian status on graduation day. She married Billy Neal, a gpod-looking football player from another school, attended and graduated from George Peabody Teachers College, then headed for Hollywood, where in 1945 she landed a screen test at 20th Century-Fox.

Fox didn't sign Bettie. The story goes that she was sent packing after she rejected a studio executive's horny attentions. (This would be a motif throughout her career — anyway, throughout her legend.) Apparently it was not the first time, or the last, that Bettie had to decide whether to submit to a man's priapic brutality. Late in life she declared that her father had sexually abused her as a child. She also described an incident in New York where a young fellow asked her if she wanted to go dancing and, when she got in his car, took her to a spot in Queens where she was forced to perform fellatio on a half-dozen men. (Both these incidents are dramatized in The Notorious Bettie Page, though the Queens assault is transplanted to Nashville.)

After a stop in Miami, Bettie arrived in New York City to pursue a serious career as an actress. Like thousands of other bright young things, Bettie auditioned for plays and films, without success, got a few minor roles in early live TV, including The U.S. Steel Hour, and studied with the distinguished acting teacher Herbert Berghof. (There's no mention of her in the HB Studio website's list of 115 distinguished alumni: Geraldine Page, but not Betty; Betsy Palmer but not Bettie Page.)

One afternoon, on the Coney Island beach, she was approached by a young man, an off-duty policeman, and asked if she'd pose for some pictures. Perform? Why not? Thanks to the cop, Jerry Tibbs, Bettie received her first lessons in modeling. (In the Gretchen Mol film, he tells her, "Give me pert. Give me naughty. Give me saucy.") Tibbs also offered Bettie some prescient advice: wear bangs. The new hairdo hid her high forehead, provided a straight-line frame for her round face and her pert lips. Voila! she now looked like Bettie Page.

Soon she was posing for Camera Clubs: groups of amateur photographers, almost always men, who got to hone their craft and be near pretty women by taking cheesecake pictures. Professionals noticed her as well, and Bettie had a career as a skin-rag cover girl, though to her it was a rent-paying sideline to her acting studies.

Why did she do it? I'd say, because she was good at it. And, like most people lucky enough to choose (or fall into) a congenial career, she liked doing what she was good at. When the cameras clicked, her personality clicked on. No wonder she keeps smiling.

The pleasure was contagious. Still is. "That was her magic gift," Ellison writes, "the ability, almost fifty years down the line, to crank back your puberty clock so you're just a horny, drooling, simpering adolescent, wishing you cold melt as one with the tachyons in the time stream and rush back to a moment when she was in her early twenties and might have given you a tumble, She is simply pure fantasy. A dream girl in all the nicest ways, in that undiluted human passion way that we all shared at some point in our innocence. She is lust in an ice cream cone (two scoops), enthusiasm in the whisper of nylon, postpubescent rambunctiousness in the back seat of a Studebaker Commander. ... She was an icon, Venus on the spike heel, the goddess Astarte come again, smoother and sleeker and possibly available."

And she created this illusion in men's minds — clouded and clarified them — virtually on her own, without the airbrushing and soft focus of the Playboy nudes (no-focus was as artistic as the Camera Clubbers got), without the sexy repartee that screenwriters gave Marilyn. Bettie was the sole creator of her myth; she was her own auteur. But her gifts were best appreciated in motion, not in repose. To express and exploit them fully, she needed to be liberated from the pages of Wink and Titter and be seen in pictures that moved. She needed a Thalberg to grant her immortality (or at least a half-century's longevity). Well, she got an Irving.

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