The Notorious Bettie Page
First, in reviewing this movie, I feel a need to make a declaration of my own sexual proclivities … but only to the extent of revealing what does not turn me on. I am uninterested in ladies’ undergarments of the ‘50s. Girdles, garters, hose, bulky bras; they all bore me. Leather, latex, rubber, six-inch heels … I might as well be watching the mating dance of the emperor penguin. Interesting, and probably sexy … to another penguin. All the bizarre paraphernalia of bondage, discipline, sado-masochism: ropes, whips, riding crops, handcuffs – degrading treatment by a dominatrix … well, I know it’s sex to some people, but to me it’s about as sexy as a male insect handing his sperm packet to a female. Even less interesting, frankly; I like a good documentary about the mating habits of banana slugs, but I’d fall fast asleep at any bondage movie. In fact, though we are supposed to be all-embracing these days as long as nobody gets hurt—and I am, I really don’t care what people do with each other so long as I don’t have to watch—I persist in regarding all this stuff as a rather old-fashioned word: perversion. I find it distasteful in the extreme. I realize that 99% of it is game-playing, but it’s not a game I understand. Sort of like golf. (If you like to be tied up and whipped, or you like to tie up and whip other people, or play golf, that’s cool. Just don’t send me your home videos.)
I was familiar with sweet little Bettie Page even before the resurgence of her popularity lately, in this piercing, tattooing, Goth, nihilist, rap, punk, deathpunk, urban primitive—and some would say, profoundly sick—culture of the ‘90s and early 21st Century. She’s become the Betty Boop of such people. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when I was sexually coming of age, all “adult” book stores (back when such places were regularly raided in some jurisdictions) had a section for these fetishes, and they all featured Bettie Page, with her startling black hair and innocent face. I’d glance at it, and move on to the images that interested me.
The makers of this film (all women, interestingly enough) have managed a miracle, in that they have come up with the only way I could possibly be interested in these images, which is to see how they were made, by whom, and most of all, the amazing story of Bettie herself. The film portrays her as a free spirit, and an innocent, and everything I’ve been able to find about her confirms this. (She’s still alive, by the way.) She seemed to be as comfortable in her skin as anyone who ever lived, except maybe Adam and Eve, and seemed pretty much indifferent to whether that skin was clothed or not. She saw it all as a silly little game, all the tying up and fake spanking and leather outfits and rubber balls tied in her mouth, and of course it was … and yet, not really, as her shocked boyfriend points out when he discovers what she’s been up to.
Believe it or not, this is a sweet little movie about sexual perversion. There is nudity but none of it seems really sexual. It was a more innocent age. Today, the Internet can take you to places that will literally make you want to vomit; back then, they worried about a glimpse of pubic hair. The brother and sister who took most of these racy photos got in trouble with the postal inspectors and shut down. Bettie found Jesus, and seems to have been as sweet about that as she was about peeling off her clothes. (Some say she spent some time in a mental institution, but there’s dispute about that.) Today she has been seen at the Playboy Mansion, and is friends with Harlan Ellison.
When they asked her what she thought of this film, she said she didn’t like the word notorious.