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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THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE That's one of the messages in The Notorious Bettie Page. One of many, along with the sexual repression of the time, the witch-hunt addiction in Congress, the dreadful uses to which men put women — and the iconoclast who becomes an icon. We've seen this a lot lately, in Walk the Line, Kinsey, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. (David Strathairn, who played Ed Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, impersonates Kefauver in this one.)

These are also themes that Mary Harron, the director of the Bettie Page movie, addressed in her excellent earlier features, I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. This time, though, Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (working from the Robert Foster book) don't get inside their compulsive protagonist. How did the Christian girl fall so easily into the 88 demimonde? And do it without shame, as though leather and whips were simply a Halloween costume? ("It's just costumes," she says to a boyfriend who's disgusted when he learns of the bondage scenes. "We're just dressing up.") Was exhibitionism Bettie's defiant declaration of innocence? "Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden," she says. When they sinned they put on clothes."

Gretchen Mol, who has a winning smile of her own, makes a game try at pinning down the Bettie mystique; she's the best thing in the movie, the one sign of restless, beguiling life amid all the social theses. But she tells us less of Bettie's charm in 90 mins. than the original did in the 5 mins, of "G-String" Dance With Betty.

If the movie has a theory to explain Bettie's behavior, it's in her naive and possibly twisted faith. Ending in the religious fervor with which it began, the film has Bettie seeing the light and being born again as a proselytizing Christian. It's an old-fashioned Hollywood bio-pic resolution that couldn't be further from the sordid truth.

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