GRETCHEN MOL - Nailing a pin-up in The Notorious Bettie Page
How much did you know about Bettie Page before you did this?
"Well I knew of the image of her, I knew the leopard bathing suit with the whip and hairdo. But I really didn't know anything about her personal life at all. There was actually a biography on television of her life, one of those E! Entertainment Channel things, and I had watched that before I even got the script. I had just seen it randomly. So when I did get the script, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this woman.' I remembered her physical presence and then her voice. When she spoke at the end of the documentary the voice didn't match with the pictures in my mind at all. So that was the thing that stuck with me."
What interested you in her enough to get involved with the film?
"Um, well, a lot of it was that it was directed by Mary Harron [American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol], and just the opportunity to take on such a tremendous role. You know, to have this kind of responsibility wasn't something that I had had in film before. So it's really not a question of why. But then, in retrospect, of course, the subject of Bettie Page fascinates me; once I started investigating who she really was, what almost felt like hypocrisy surrounding her, her choices, I was hooked."
Was there anything else?
"Well it was one thing: why are the photographs still being looked at today? Why have they transcended the generations? In the 50s she wasn't a famous model. She had some notoriety for her pin-up modelling and then, of course, there was this underground world of fetishism where she was known, but it really came into the light when the Senator sort of brought up these pornography charges and she was called to testify. But then again, she never got the chance to testify. So the bigger thing was these images that have lasted and a lot of that was, I think, the quality that she projected with the still photography, this kind of total purity. She could take a really sort of sexy photograph without making the viewer feel guilt. There was no shame in anything she did. She seemed to get as much out of it as the viewer might get out of it."
People used to project their fantasies onto her.
"Yes, this sort of quality she had where she was almost a blank slate where she could be whatever you needed her to be. She was totally non-judgmental about it, and she invited you to have her be whatever you wanted her to be. So, you know, she had that kind of special quality. But also she's set within the framework of the 50s, which I think is what Mary was interested in with the film, where there's this sexual repression that's happening, and yet at the same time here's this woman that seems to have no issues or hang ups with her own sexuality. And it's a kind of sexuality that even though she's wearing these costumes, it never feels dirty."
When you got the script, did you ever think, ‘Why on earth me? I don't have the hair, I don't have the shape. . .'?
"Well, I had to really work hard to get the role because of those things."
Did you approach Mary or did she approach you?
"Well it's sort of typical way of casting where your agent gets the script and they send it out to a lot of actresses. I had met Mary when she did American Psycho, and I wasn't able to be in that film because of another film I was doing at the time. Really, I think she didn't see me at all for the part, but she was kind of open-minded enough, and I knew the casting director, so I kind of went in off the cuff. I got the script, it's a challenging part, I have nothing to lose, I don't look anything like her, but yeah, I felt there was something in her that I understood. So I had a connection to the character and I was excited about showing Mary, but I didn't know for sure if she would see it. But then again, I think Mary was always looking for the essence of who she felt Bettie Page was rather than the physical look."
So that's you on the poster?
"Yeah, that's me."
You're just like her.
"I was amazed. I have seen myself with dark hair - I dyed it for another film once - so I knew I could look different. I was pleased that when I put the wig on, and with some work and make up, and choreography, the poses and everything, it works out. [Giggles] I think."
Did you watch the old loops of Bettie?
"Oh yeah, I studied all of her movements and how she would work the camera. Or kind of, in a way, how she wouldn't work the camera. How she seemed to be in her own space. When she was posing she would kind of go somewhere else. She's kind of in her own little world a lot of times. She just reminded me of when you see a little child at a wedding dancing and they're totally oblivious to everything around them and enjoying the music, it's a very pure thing. That is what their photographs do: they invite you to watch and enjoy."
So you were never provoked or disgusted when you saw these films?
"Never. No, the one thing about Bettie was, she was quoted as saying, ‘I was just doing my job, doing it the best I could.' She could have been a teacher, or she could have probably been a nurse, there weren't a lot of other options. She wanted to be an actress so in the meantime she kind of found her way into modelling, and one thing led to another. She was a person that went with the flow of life as opposed to trying to instigate major changes in her life. That was another thing that interested me about her."
She didn't get any excitement out of doing these pictures?
"Well, I do think she got as much out of it as the audience got. There was something in it for her. It gave her as much as she gave it. I don't think it was a sexual kind of satisfaction. But I do think here was a woman that had had some traumatic things happen to her in her life and she never really seemed to have any real other relationship in her life that was constant, other than the relationship with God. I think with the posing she had a boundary, a safe place where she could express herself in a sexual way, maybe. But no one could quite get to her."
How aware do you think she was of her own sexuality? She's almost like the anti-Marilyn Monroe, who was very conscious, and could turn it on and off
"I'm sure she was aware of it. You know, the word naïve keeps coming up in a way. To me it was a knowing naivete. She knew what was going on but it was the attitude of the 50s to pick and choose what you wanted to look at and how closely you wanted to look at it. I think she was doing her job, and she was making her living, but I'm sure she knew what was going on. But it didn't serve her in any way to really investigate and I think when she thought about it, she was making people happy and she wasn't judging them for a fetish. You know, OK, you like shoes, you like whips or whatever. I think within the realm of what they were doing it was like acting or playing dress up."
Did you keep any of your wardrobe?
"Oh, I made sure I got my wardrobe."
The entire wardrobe?
"A lot of it was rented. But, um, you know, the clothes of 50s, a lot of skirts and things. But a lot of it, the bathing suits and things, were actually made by this costume designer, John Dunn, who's amazing. Bettie actually made of lot of her things for her photo-shoots, so we copied that. If you look at the photographs, you say, ‘Oh, there's the one with the little daisies on it.' And, in a way, she took pride in knowing how to dress her own figure, what would look good and what wouldn't. For the costumes it was so important because a lot of it is proportion, trying to get that right, and the lines."
It's interesting that when Bettie goes to court for the obscenity hearings, her 50s clothes are almost fetishistic in the way they hug her figure, the gloves bind her wrists, and so on.
"Yeah, yeah. Well, they were such constricted clothes. Basically those under garments that she's wearing, they're more than you'd put on now, but somehow sexier, I think."
Would Bettie be a star today?
"Well in America she's got a cult following. She is a pop icon. A lot of people dress like her, they do a burlesque show, and a lot of people will put on the wig and do acts like Bettie Page. And fashion and everything, the looks were inspired by things that she wore then. When Madonna had the cone bras in the early 90s, she was doing that in the 50s. But then again, all those girls in the 50s were inspired by earlier things."
Would you dress up as Bettie Page and go to any of the conventions?
"No, no, no. It's funny, in the casting, of course, I've seen things online because there are impersonators of Bettie that can look and pose just liker her. But I've never been interested in it from a fan's point of view. I stripped away all that to see who she is."
With the Bunney Yaeger pictures in the film they come with the tag, ‘Not Naked.' I wonder what you think about this - the difference between naked and nude - because it's the argument that got actresses like Kiera Knightley and Scarlett Johansson to pose nude on the cover of Vanity Fair recently.
"Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] Even in the film when she says that, I never quite understand the difference. It's sort of like, ‘Do you want to be called an actor or an actress?' It's like, whatever. It's all the same to me: nude, naked, neither one's worse; neither one's better. Why should there be shame attached to it? But I also think you have to be careful and make your choices."
Do you think it was a mistake for them to do those photographs?
"Well, I have my own Vanity Fair cover a while back, in 1998, and that was pretty provocative."
Nude or naked?
"I don't know, actually. But I was surprised when I saw it. It was pretty provocative and I didn't expect it to be. But, yeah, to me, after doing this role even, I've been asked to do Playboy and pose like Bettie Page, and all the press say, ‘Will you do something with bondage?' You know, it was a role for me so there is a time and place for it, and now it's behind me in a way and I'm moving onto the next thing."
Did you find the nudity in the film quite easy because what comes across is just how comfortable you seem?
"Yeah. I had to sort of get behind her philosophy, whether conscious or unconscious, that she seemed almost the most at ease, or the most free, when she was nude or naked, especially outside. And, you know, I thought about it beforehand, obviously, that this wasn't just nothing, but by the time we got to that it was OK. It was kind of OK."
Has Tod Williams, your husband, seen the film?
"Oh yeah. He loves it. He loves the film. And he knows the whole process of me getting the role and everything. I think I can say he's proud, you know?"
To have a wife who played Bettie Page, how much more woman can you get?
"[Laughs] Yeah, but he knows the secrets that it took for me to get there. I mean, you know, just the physical transformation."
It's quite amazing seeing you now. Are these stockings from the film?
"No. These are mine."
Bettie Page is still alive. Is she getting royalties from this?
"Well, apparently Mary tried to contact her early on in the process and she had sold her life rights to another film company, so she wouldn't be involved in this film. I don't even know exactly what that means when you sell your life. But she's also very reclusive. She didn't want to be involved and then she did see a screening at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner has a screening for her. She came. Of course, I wasn't invited. I don't know exactly how she felt about it."
It's a weird life. She lives a reclusive life and yet she goes to Hugh Hefner's.
"Again, it's so Bettie. These things knocking up against each other."
He saved her from bankruptcy, didn't he?
"Yeah. And I think probably kind of cares about her in some way. He has screening nights. I don't know all the details behind it. I would have loved to meet her but I also understand that it just must have been odd."
She was institutionalised with schizophrenia later in life. That's not in the film, but do you think it's hinted at, this sort of double life she's living?
"Yeah, I knew about that of course when I took on the role, and how it wasn't really going to be in the film, so are there ways to hint at that signs of things to come? I think that they're just in the way she would go off in her own world. You know, she definitely had some trauma that she never really seemed to deal with. It's just a combination of things. So much of it is of the times. And then in the 60s, diagnosing everyone with schizophrenia was a really popular thing to do. So if she could have taken a pill or something, it would have been okay."
She attacked people with a knife in the 80s and was institutionalised.
So what's next?
"I'm doing a film called Train Wreck: My Life as an Idiot that my husband's cousin, Todd Harrison Williams, is directing. It's a comedy. Sean William Scott is in it. It's a very fun, playful movie, although not a gross-out comedy. It's just a very smart and well-written script."
The Notorious Bettie Page is perfect for now because it could be talking about the current conservative climate.
"It's funny, it took Mary 10 years to realise it on film and it does kind of end up making sense with our government and where we're at with our country right now."
The Notorious Bettie Page is released August 4