Film: Return of a Pinup Queen

Gretchen Mol takes the spotlight -- again -- via the The Notorious Bettie Page

May 3, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Picturehouse Films

Whip it, whip it good: Gretchen Mol plays Bettie Page in director Mary Harron's biopic of the notorious pinup model.

Gretchen Mol, who stars in The Notorious Bettie Page, couldn't be more accommodating in her interview. She is cheerful and fully engaged with the questions, at times self-deprecating, at others introspective.

But at a certain point — after the fourth or fifth question about her disastrous appearance on the September 1998 Vanity Fair cover that posited her as Hollywood's next "It Girl" — she leans forward from her chair in this hotel meeting room and quietly pleads.

"Can we talk about something else?" she asks, without anger but with a hint of exhaustion. She puts a hand to her forehead. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. It's so long ago. I just feel like I've moved on from it."

It's evident she has. In The Notorious Bettie Page, Mol plays the buxom 1950s-era pinup queen whose provocative poses and bondage films have become recognized as landmarks in the introduction of fetishism and its attendant attire into popular culture.

Mol, 33, is in virtually every scene, clothed (and sometimes unclothed) in the fashions and styles that made Page so distinctively sexy: long dark hair with waterfall-like bangs, black heels and mesh stockings, black corset with accompanying whip, lacy bras and bold bikinis. It is a full-blown starring role.

By contrast, when Vanity Fair put her on the cover in 1998, she was a virtual unknown, having first appeared on the big screen as a phone-sex operator in Spike Lee's 1996 film Girl 6. When her two that came out soon afterward bombed, Rounders and Woody Allen's Celebrity, the resounding show-biz judgment was that she was not the new Clara Bow. In fact, it was decided, she couldn't open a movie.

She became, as she has said previously, "The poster child of hype." The "It Girl" cover became a media joke.

She kept working, however, if out of the limelight of hit Hollywood movies and celebrity-magazine covers. It helped that the Deep River, Conn., native had training in acting at New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy and had confidence in her abilities.

She was in Jason Alexander's Just Looking, Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock and Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things onscreen. She also starred in Shape on the London stage and played Roxie Hart in a Broadway revival of Chicago. Along the way she married director Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor).

In a way, this renewed Bettie Page attention announces a comeback.

"But how can it be a comeback when I never really arrived?" Mol argues. "What's nice about this is it feels very new, like it's the first time, yet I had a dress rehearsal for something. I definitely feel more informed about the business. That was good, that was OK. It was good to understand something about the machinery of it."

In person, Mol looks nothing like Page. Her hair is light-brownish blonde and modestly cut, and she is petite with the softest of features. Her trim eyebrows almost vanish into her forehead. Her clothing is stylishly conservative. In terms of recalling females of the 1950s, she conjures Tuesday Weld or even Doris Day far more than Page.

It appears to be a strange casting choice. But then Bettie Page is, in its way, a strange choice for a biopic. It's predominately a black-and-white film directed and co-written by Mary Harron (American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol).

Page, who is still alive but not involved in the production, was not well known in the 1950s outside of male devotees of the sexy-photo, fetish-film underground. And then she virtually disappeared for several decades.

Only recently have pop-culture enthusiasts rediscovered and championed her as a retro-cool, pre-pornography symbol of how young women can dress up and act out fantasies while maintaining self-respect.

In the movie's version of Page, she wanders through her pinup years with a good-humored, unaffected Southern-gal sweetness (she was from Nashville) and seems oblivious to the darker aspects of what she was part of. Page exhibits that joy despite hardships she faced before coming to New York and finding this work — she experienced a strict upbringing and a failed marriage and was a victim of sexual violence.

Although the film isn't specifically a feminist interpretation, it does matter that the director of Bettie Page is a woman, as is the screenplay co-writer, Guinevere Turner. (The three producers, too, are women — Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel and Christine Vachon.)

"If men had made the movie, it would be more va-va-voom, more sexy and about the glamour of the pinup," Harron says. "We were interested in the backstage side, the behind-the-scenes — what life made for her."

Because of those ideas, there were casting considerations other than merely finding someone who looked like (and was built like) Page. The chosen actress needed to understand the character.

"She certainly wasn't on my list or the list anyone would prepare," Harron says of Mol. "She just seems too slim. But when she came in to read for it, she was so natural. A lot of people who came in were so modern in the way they carried themselves and the way they spoke. I thought a lot of people were straining too hard. But there was something playful and fun and innocent about the way (Mol) did her posing. And she had the emotional qualities, the sense of vulnerability."

This last point is important because Harron thinks maybe, just maybe, Mol's Vanity Fair experience helped her get in touch with that vulnerability.

"The fact she experienced ups and downs of show business allowed her to bring in some of the sadder notes," Harron says. "There are some melancholy undercurrents to the story. From having had her own experiences, she was able to bring more to the table."

Mol had first learned of Page watching a 1998 E! True Hollywood Story episode. Throughout the program, there were teasers announcing that the mysterious Page would appear at the end.

"That was what kept me watching," she recalls. "At the end she appeared but was all blacked-out because she wanted to be remembered by fans for the way she was. But I remember I was struck by the sort of melancholy in her voice, and how it didn't necessarily match with all the images I'd just seen of her.

"And then when I read the script, it confirmed all these ideas I'd had," Mol continues. "And I thought, 'I've got nothing to lose.' Physically, it's a leap but with a wig and a little makeup ... at the time I hadn't done Chicago, so I was looking for good roles." (Mol had earlier been cast in Harron's American Psycho but had to withdraw.)

"From the beginning, the first thing I did was purchase one of those $15 wigs you could get at a dime store. That was with me at all the rehearsals. As soon as that wig would go on, I had permission to be this other person."

She also had confidence in her abilities as an actress, ever since a casting director at an early audition complimented Mol on her fearlessness. Fittingly, at the time she had impersonated another (less graphic) sex symbol of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe.

"You always have this list of 'special skills' you fill out when you're beginning as an actor, like sneezing on cue," she says, laughing. "I just threw on 'Marilyn Monroe impersonation' not knowing if I could pull it off. At the time I loved her and my hair was sort of like hers."

As this interview comes to its end, the topic returns once more to that infamous Vanity Fair article. Eight years later, she is again the subject of magazine spreads and newspaper articles because of an upcoming film that the public has yet to see. Isn't she scared of history repeating itself?

"You do a movie and you have to promote the movie," she explains. ''It's very much a separate thing from me. I'm able to separate it now. You just proceed with caution." ©