Call it a tale of two women: both young and pretty and naive about a business that can chew up starlets and spit them out fast.
The ladies are 1950s pinup model Bettie Page and modern-day actress Gretchen Mol, who plays Page in a new movie, “The Notorious Bettie Page,” which debuts in theaters April 14. Their stories are similar in one respect. Both achieved soaring fame before either was ready to handle it.
From 1949 to 1957, Page delighted men in scandalous photos of her in lingerie and in bondage. She was among the first Playboy centerfolds with a photo decorating a Christmas tree, topless and smiling under her black hair, short bangs and Santa hat. But when her pictures became the focus of a federal probe into pornography, her work diminished and she soon quit.
Mol got her first big break as an actress in director Spike Lee’s 1996 film “Girl 6” and two years later at age 25, she graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine as, perhaps, ”Hollywood’s next ’It’ Girl?”. But her subsequent movie, ”Rounders,” flopped at box offices, and Mol’s career suffered.
“I just didn’t expect it to have the impact it did, and that was where I was naive,” Mol told Reuters. “At the same time I’m happy ultimately for the experience because I’m stronger.”
The comparison is apt because director Mary Harron portrays Page as innocently unaware of her photos’ impact. Moreover, the film focuses on Page’s pre-1957 life excluding later years when she became a Christian crusader and a victim of mental illness.
Mol’s career did not take off after the Vanity Fair cover but unlike Page, she never quit. Her work has steadily improved, and her portrayal of Bettie Page is winning raves amid the mostly mixed comments for the film, overall.
Show business newspaper The Hollywood Reporter said Mol ”delivers a delightfully exuberant lead performance,” while rival Daily Variety wrote that she “is splendid to behold in every stage of dress or undress.”
Honing her craftMol, now 32, was born and raised in Connecticut and moved to New York as a teenager to study acting. After a job checking coats, she landed the role in “Girl 6,” then a job on TV’s ”Spin City” and a bit part in thriller “Donnie Brasco.”
In drama “Rounders,” she acted opposite Matt Damon, but the big-budget movie scored a paltry $23 million at domestic box offices. Years of mostly low-budget films, stage and television roles followed, but that proved positive for the actress.
Mol said that by honing her craft in non-Hollywood work with directors such as Woody Allen (”Sweet and Lowdown”), she learned how to separate the “show” of making movies from the ”business” of making and promoting them.
“It’s nice to step back, and then you start to see where your tastes (in parts) lie,” she said.
The slender, attractive Mol now refers to herself as a “working actress,” meaning she’d rather be known for the quality of her performance than for fame or celebrity.
Playing Bettie Page offered her the opportunity to portray a sexual revolution icon in a movie that ultimately comments on society’s obsession and objectification of female beauty.
Mol also wanted to work with director Harron whose previous two films, “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” took what could have been standard psychological thrillers and turned them into sharp social commentary.
“Gretchen was the ideal choice for Bettie because she had a combination of innocence, exuberance and playfulness,” Harron said. “She is a wonderful actress and, of course, she also had the physical beauty to bring off the part.”
The naked truthTo be Bettie Page, Mol not only needed a good body, she had to show it. More than that, the role required a certain comfort about appearing nude before millions of people because Page’s attitude was, and still is, that the naked body is a beautiful thing.
Publicity shy Page, 82, told the Los Angeles Times in a rare interview that “when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked.” That sentiment is echoed throughout the film.
“I never really have had, at its core, an issue with nudity in films except that I know when I think it’s exploitative and when I think it’s beautiful,” Mol said. “I trusted Mary ... and I believed in (Bettie’s) philosophy which is ’what’s the harm in it, what’s the shame.’...Armed with that knowledge, and a wig, I had to leave (any worries) behind.”
Mol has blonde hair; Page is a dark brunette.
The next film for Mol, “Puccini for Beginners” was made in a similar vein. It is the comic tale of a lesbian whose sexuality faces a challenge when she begins sleeping with a man.
“I wish I could say I have this kind of big plan, but now, so much of it is what comes along the pike, and then, you just say, there’s something about that role that just tickles me or sort of feels right.”