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The Notorious Bettie Page ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Before the cream sits too long, you must whip it.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com) 

Starring: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, David Strathairn, Lily Taylor. Rated R.

There is a fascinating story about the life of '50s pinup model Bettie Page that no number of lurid photos or campy fetish films could ever properly express. As a sweet-natured girl from Nashville whose dreams of acting are dashed early in life by, of all things, her inhibitions, she seems an unlikely candidate to become America's most recognizable bondage queen. Yet she does just that, posing provocatively in spread after spread, flashing her famously innocent smile in pictures that shocked conservative legislators at the time, but can only be considered tame by today's standards.

Did Page enjoy the attention of the cameramen who helped cultivate her image as a leather-clad, whip-toting dominatrix, the likes of which had never been seen on such a prominent stage? Clearly, she did. But behind the scenes, Page remained driven by her religious convictions, and dogged by misgivings about her career as a pinup sensation. Until she retired from modeling in 1957, she was a divided woman, unable to reconcile her life as a devout Christian with her professional reputation as one of the world's most infamous sex kittens.

The Notorious Bettie Page, director Mary Harron's 14-year labor of love, is a competent depiction of that struggle, and though it resists the urge to exploit the kinkier aspects of Page's life both in front of and behind the camera, it doesn't gloss over the less glamorous details: a bad marriage, a gang rape and a scarring showdown with the law that would plant the seeds for Page's premature retirement. And relative unknown Gretchen Mol (The Shape of Things) is ideal for the role. Like the pinup queen herself, she has a sweet, innocent smile, and even as her character weathers a string of personal indignities, she retains an almost childlike naiveté without sacrificing Page's inner strength.

The Notorious Bettie Page was originally conceived as a short film, and later as a feature-length production destined for HBO. Perhaps it would have been better suited to the small screen. Despite a strong supporting cast featuring David Strathairn, Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer (The Wire), it's an oddly flat biopic that presents a remarkable story without giving us enough reasons to care about it. It's entertaining, sure, and informative for those eager to learn more about the private life of an American cult icon. But as pleasant and pure of spirit as its heroine might have been, The Notorious Bettie Page is more lacking than it should be in imagination and insight.

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