GETS NOTORIOUS AS PINUP LEGEND BETTIE PAGE
by Brad Balfour
Before making The Notorious Bettie Page, 30-something actress Gretchen Mol had been working solidly, but had not quite found that signature role that would recoup her early momentum. Thanks to her role as 1950s cultural icon – S&M pinup girl Bettie Page – Mol demonstrates how well she can still inhabit a role.
She has clearly garnered the experience to reach this point, having been in such films as Donnie Brasco, The Thirteenth Floor and The Shape of Things. But this Connecticut-raised blonde made the part of the raven-haired Page her own.
What is it about you that allowed you to channel Bettie Page so successfully and really become her?
Oh, thank you. It was that lack of self-consciousness that she had when she was posing, and I thought if I can get 60% of that I’d be in good shape. Well maybe not; [laughter] it wouldn’t have been enough. But I really knew that was the key to, you know her talent in front of the camera. With that complete, healthy attitude about her own nakedness and her lack of shame, [it] was knowing that she seemed to be able to create that for herself in front of the camera when she had sort of a bubble around her – that she had her boundary there – and that in her own life maybe she knew that she wasn’t as successful.
In terms of the un-self-consciousness, was she ahead of her time or was she just naïve, and didn’t really know what she was getting into?
I don’t think she was naïve, I think that this was the attitude of the 1950’s to pick and choose what you looked at deeply. You know, nobody was going to force that on her. She didn’t really come in contact with the people that were looking at and using her photographs. So, for her it was a job and I don’t think she was naïve about it. But I think she was, you know, doing her job the best she could and she was not judgmental about the men or the people that were interested in bondage photography and fetish.
When Bettie Page poses throughout the film, she seems to be a happy person. Was that notion in the script or was that from you?
I think it was in the script. It was in the feeling of the script. But it was also just; you can’t look at those photographs of her and not believe that she was tapping into some joyous part of herself when she was posing.
Did you see her as some kind of proto-feminist?
Well I knew because I’d read interviews and heard her speak about this, that she didn’t take that on herself. She wasn’t trying to do anything but her job and she just had this kind of non-judgmental spirit. People were always able to look at Bettie Page and see what they needed her to be and she gave them that permission to do so. So, in that way she’s a feminist but I don’t think she was ever trying to be.
Do you personally think what she did was a feminist act?
Looking back on it, yes; she was highly evolved in her way of seeing her own sexuality. She didn’t see the shame or the harm in doing the things that she was doing. So, in that way I would call her a feminist.
I heard that the real Bettie Page was not involved with the research for this film and that you didn’t get to meet her.
Did you use her films and other materials that she had out there to base your interpretation on?
There was a lot of source material for me. There were so many photographs and a couple of interviews just so that I could find and hear her voice, which was very important. And the loop reels and everything and so at a certain point it became about letting go of all the information, you know, compiling it together, doing everything and then kind of stepping into her shoes and trying to let go of that.
Was it hard to get into her head to try to figure out what she was thinking?
It was. Because there were a lot of contradictions, you know, like you said about being naïve, there were some things that seem naïve and then there was another part of her that seems very much like she’s not calculated at all but she’s very aware of it all but not wanting to look at it. You know, I think her psychology was very interesting and the film because it was being so subtle about that it wasn’t saying, you know, “A” happened and therefore “B.” You know, it wasn’t the typical biopic.
What do you feel are the big differences between women then and now that shaped her?
I don’t really think the differences are that great because the time period shapes who you are and how you feel. Bettie Page was always a small-town girl without a real sense of home except for possibly her relationship with God and her religion. I think that now she would probably be the same way but I also think there is a limit to how much she was ever going to do. She could have done stag films but she didn’t. She could have slept with the producer and been ambitious about her movie career, but that didn’t happen. It would be interesting to see what she would do today. One of the moments in Bettie Page’s life – and she would talk about this in interviews – was the fact that she didn’t get that scholarship and that was such a big moment that shaped the trajectory of her career.
She seems smarter than anyone else in the film. Was that part of your character?
Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t really approach it that way, although I felt that I had such a respect for Bettie’s point of view, which was smart in that she didn’t have those prejudices. She seemed to be evolved, to be beyond the typical kind of sexual bondage of the 1950’s.
She could have gone on in the direction of a Marilyn Monroe, but she was stuck in the mediocre world. And that’s why I think people find her appealing: she’s the best in that world. She was the Marilyn Monroe of that world.
Well she was so able to tap into something of herself, of her true creative self when she was posing for photographs that she wasn’t able to do with her acting, which I think she showed glimpses of in her films. I thought that was such an interesting thing about her too is that she seemed so alive, and so comfortable and without any self-consciousness in front of a still camera and then as soon as she had to do the live bits, she couldn’t quite break through. A lot of that was the time in the ’50s when actors were sort of digging into their own psychologies and using that drama in their work, and Bettie wasn’t able to do that.
Being naked in a film is one thing, but being tied up and trussed up is something very different. What was that experience like and how hard was that?
Well, again, I look at those photographs and she always had a wink. It was like a twinkle behind her eye, so it didn’t have the darkness that you might think of. And when you look at pictures today, there certainly is a darkness in the world of S&M, but I didn’t feel that this is what they were doing. When you look at those images they are such a playful innocence, at least the way Bettie did it. They [had this feeling of] “come on in, enjoy. It’s okay.” She gave you that permission.
Certainly by ’50s standards, what she was doing was a rebellious act; she was a rebel. Do you think that that rebellion was a result of the fact that she was molested by her father as a child?
Well I wanted to be careful too much in connecting those dots, because yes, if you look at women in a sexual trade, you can say you know that they’ve had some abuse, but that would have been simplifying Bettie Page too. There is so much more complexity than that. But yes, that certainly factored into it. What’s interesting to me is that not only did she end up in this world but she excelled in it in such a way, in such a unique way. It was never full on, come hither, playing at the sexuality. She seemed to be getting as much out of it as the audience.
Are these all reasons why she’s lasted this long or do you have other insights into why she has lasted as a cultural icon?
It’s all those things, the dichotomy – all these juxtapositions, everything kind of bumping up against each other. That’s what Bettie represents. She’s whatever people needed her to be. Somehow, she had a quality that other models didn’t have that’s still kind of a mystery to me. That’s what I love about the movie too, is that it retains the enigmatic quality of Bettie Page. It still lets her be what people need her to be.
How did you and director Mary Harron work together to get to that point?
We talked about all these things a little bit, roughly, but so much of it was the script and the information that I was able to find about Bettie and she kind of trusted me with the character and I knew very early on that we were on the same page. Just the fact that she cast me at all meant that she wasn’t just going for the physical aspects only of Bettie Page; she was trying to get at some of her essence I think.
Would you rather do a film like this with a woman at the helm?
I think probably yes, especially based on Mary’s past work and I just, I knew what she was interested in from this character and that’s what I was interested in too.
Mary and Guinevere [Turner, the co-writer] did a lot of research before you came on board. Was there any time where you questioned anything that happened in the movie as far as whether it really happened?
All parts of it, it’s very accurate. Bettie will tell these stories. And even the way it’s handled in the film, how subtle the thing with her father is; I mean that’s about as much as you’ll ever find about that. She would talk about it but you’re not sure what exactly happened.
So, you had somewhere to back up the information?
I found all that stuff pretty readily. There were interviews and there’s the Karen Essex book [written with James L. Swanson – Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend (General Publishing)] that was pretty comprehensive.
Was there anything about Bettie that surprised you personally but didn’t wind up in the film or wasn’t in the script?
I read a Richard Foster biography of Bettie Page [The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups (Carol Publishing/Birch Lane Press)] which goes into her later life when she had suffered some breakdowns, there’s a lot that happened after her modeling heyday. It was an interesting choice of Mary’s to focus on the 1950s. Bettie Page was almost as a catalyst because she knows how it was like back in the 1950’s which was the heyday of Bettie’s life.
We see her uninhibited doing the posing. Because we don’t really see her in the bedroom, did you ever think about what was she like in the bedroom? Was she inhibited?
I don’t know, I thought about it. She had a few marriages, but not one; I couldn’t find a relationship apart from the camera, and God that was the true intimate relationship. She had a few husbands, and she had some people that were good to her – the first photographer who helped her with the thing – but I don’t know.
Bettie was whatever people wanted her to be; when you started out as an actress, was that what you had to do?
I mean, no. You’re just doing things. I just always think of that as the job, not anything else, just go to work and take on the part.
Were you ever uneasy or uncomfortable doing the nudity on camera?
As far as the nudity in this film it was obviously to the character. I mean from day one I knew what I was getting involved with. I certainly thought about it but I also appreciated Bettie’s point of view on it. Her stand on it, I thought it was completely healthy and okay.
Young actresses like models in the business are almost seen more as objects than as actual artists. Was that your experience?
Well, I never felt that way about myself, so that was all that mattered really. Sure, there’s the media and there’s this whole other thing that happened. And you do have to be careful of that, young, old, at any age you know, to hang on to yourself, that’s all you’ve got.
Was there a time when somebody said, “I want you to do this”? And you said, “No, that’s crossing the line, I’m not going to.”
No, I’ve been pretty lucky. I had a good family and I know my limits.
Have you gotten calls from Playboy and would you do it?
I wouldn’t, for me, personal choice. There were inquiries because of the movie and because Bettie was a pinup in 1955, she was in Playboy.
Have you been getting more calls and scripts after doing this movie than you normally get?
It’s hard to know really how it’s going to happen, but I feel the career ebbs and flows and now there’s a nice feeling of more interest than there has been at other times.
When you began you really exploded into the media [as a new face to watch for on cover of Vanity Fair]. Did that hurt or help?
It’s so long ago, and I don’t have any regrets. Everything I’ve been able to learn from experiences and try to get, you know, take the value from them. So, I have no regrets.
What are you working on now?
Right now it’s a film called Train Wreck, My Life as an Idiot, which is a dark comedy with Seann-William Scott, and my cousin Todd Harrison-Williams is directing it. We’re shooting it all around the city and we’re having a real good time with that and I don’t know beyond that.
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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2006.