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GETS NOTORIOUS AS
PINUP LEGEND BETTIE PAGE
by Brad Balfour
©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
April 17, 2006.
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
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
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 gonna 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.
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
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 of 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.
seems smarter than anyone else in the film. Was that part of your
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.
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 kind
of whatever people needed her to be and somehow she had a quality that
other models didn't have that's still kind of a mystery to me and that's
what I love about the movie too, is that it kind of retains the enigmatic,
you know, 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
What are you working
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.