Dear CHUD reader, I have failed you. I didn’t ask Gretchen Mol about her pubes. You see, in her new movie, The Notorious Bettie Page, Mol has some full frontal action, and her ladybits are done up in the style of the film’s time period – thick and fuzzy. And black. I have often found myself wondering whether Mol was wearing a merkin or had done a Pubis DeNiro. But now we will never know, unless this information is included on the DVD.
Mol’s interesting because she’s long been more famous than she has deserved. Which isn’t to make a judgment about her acting but rather to point out the fact that when she got the cover of Vanity Fair she had had bit parts in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and as Matt Damon’s girlfriend in Rounders. Since then she hasn’t really had the kind of major role in a major film that drew attention to herself – Bettie Page is changing all that. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, aka one of the biggest quote whores in the movie business, calls her performance one of the first Oscar-worthy roles of the year. I don’t know if I would go that far, but I do think that her turn as Page could be the start of a new phase in her career.
Q: When Bettie Page poses all through the film, she’s like the happiest person ever. Was that in the script? Was that a direction? Or was that from you?
Mol: I think it was in the script. It was in the feeling of the script. But also, 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.
Q: Did you see what she did as any kind of feminist statement?
Mol: 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 and that kind of… 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.
Q: What about you personally? Do you think what she did was a feminist thing?
Mol: I think looking back on it, yes; she was highly evolved in her way of seeing her own sexuality. That 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.
Q: So what was it about you that you were able to channel her in such a way to do it so successfully?
Mol: It was that lack of self consciousness that she had when she was posing. And I thought if I can get sixty percent of that I’d be in good shape. Well maybe not, [laughs] it wouldn’t have been enough. But I really knew that was the key to her talent in front of the camera. With that complete, healthy attitude about her own nakedness and her lack of shame, so that was that and knowing that she seemed to be able to create that for herself in front of the camera when she was she had sort of a bubble around her, that she had her boundary there.
Q: Do you think in terms of the un-self-consciousness was she sort of ahead of her time or do you think she was just sort of naïve, she didn’t really know what she was getting into?
Mol: 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. 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.
Q: I’ve heard that the real Bettie Page was not involved with all the research or anything and you didn’t get the chance to meet her beforehand.
Mol: I didn’t.
Q: Did that make it harder? Were you able to do other research into her life?
Mol: There was a lot of source material for me, I mean there were so many photographs and there were 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.
Q: Was it hard to get into her head to try to figure out what she was thinking?
Mol: It was. It was. Because there were a lot of contradictions, 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 and not wanting to look at it. You know, I think her psychology was very interesting.
Q: What do you feel are the big differences between women then and now that shaped her?
Mol: I don’t really think the differences are that great because I think the time period shapes who you are and how you feel. She 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 she didn’t. So it would be interesting to see what she would do today. I think one of the pivotal 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.
Q: She could have gone on to be another Marilyn Monroe. She could have gone on in that direction, been like Marilyn Monroe, but she was stuck in, really, what seems like a mediocre world. And that could be part of what people find appealing – she’s the best in that world. She was the Marilyn Monroe of that world.
Mol: 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. I thought that was such an interesting thing about her, that she seemed so alive, and so comfortable and without any self-consciousness in front of a still camera and then as soon as, you know, she had to do the live bits, she couldn’t quite break through and a lot of that was the time in the fifties 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.
Q: You talk about getting into her mind; can you talk about getting into her boots and ball gag? Well, being naked in a film is one thing, but sort of being tied up and trussed up is something very different. What was that experience like and how hard was that?
Mol: Well, again, I look at those photographs and she always had, you know, a wink. It was like a twinkle behind her eye, so it wasn’t… it didn’t have the darkness that you might think. 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. I mean when you look at those images they are such a playful innocence, at least the way Bettie did it. That sort of like, hey come on in, enjoy, its ok. She gave you that permission.
Q: In the movie she’s molested by her father. And what she’s doing is a rebellious act, I mean, certainly in the Fifties, by Fifties standards, she was a rebel. Do you think that that rebellion is as a result of the fact that she was molested by her father as a child?
Mol: 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. You know, 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.
Q: Having all this said, are these all the reasons why she’s lasted this long or do you have other insights into why she’s lasted?
Mol: 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. That’s what I love about the movie too, is that it kind of retains the enigmatic quality of Bettie Page. It kind of still lets her be what people need her to be.
Q: Did you and Mary talk about these things?
Mol: 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. 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.
Q: Was there anything about Bettie that you learned in your research that surprised you personally but didn’t wind up in the fil?
Mol: There’s a Richard Foster biography of Bettie Page which goes into her later life when she had suffered some breakdowns, there’s a lot that happened after her modeling heyday. I think it was an interesting choice of Mary’s to focus on the 1950s and Bettie Page almost as a catalyst because you know how it was back in the 1950s.
Q: We see how uninhibited she is while posing, but the movie stays out of the bedroom. Do you think she was as uninhibited in bed? We see her as a sexual icon here but never see her sexually.
Mol: I don’t know, I thought about it. I don’t know. She had a few marriages but I couldn’t find relationships, apart from the camera and God, that were the true intimate relationships.
Q: Have you gotten calls from Playboy and would you do it?
Mol: 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.
Q: Has this movie made a difference for you in terms of getting offers?
Mol: It’s hard to know really how its gonna happen, but I feel like you know, the career ebbs and flows and now there’s a nice sort of, there’s a feeling of more interest than there has been at other times.
Q: Well your career ebbs and flows have been really unique because you began and really exploded into the media right out of the gate. Did that really hurt? Do you think that really helped? How did that affect you personally, where you appear in a couple of films and suddenly have the cover of Vanity Fair?
Mol: You know, it’s so long ago [laughs]. I don’t have any regrets. Everything I’ve been able to learn from experiences and try to take the value from them. So, I have no regrets.