Gretchen Mol Has Big Stilettos to Fill

Pin-up provocateur Bettie Page was a scandal in 1955. Now she's become an American icon.

Even when she's lashed to a chair, chains around her ankles and a gag over her mouth, there's something innocent and practically perky about pin-up Bettie Page. It's still there in the images, 50 years after they were taken.

Whether she's posing with leopards, brandishing a whip or -- in thigh-highs and stilettos -- coyly looking back over her shoulder, Page always manages to come across as nothing more than a particularly curvaceous girl next door, just having some All-American fun.

Which isn't quite the way folks saw her in the mid-'50s, when she was an underground sensation on the covers of pulp magazines such as Wink, Beauty Parade, Black Nylon and Titter.

In the uptight Eisenhower era, those photos landed her in the hot seat of a nationally televised Senate hearing on pornography.

As depicted in "The Notorious Bettie Page," Friday's new release starring Gretchen Mol, the pin-up icon helped redefine what we think is sexy in the 21st century.

"The idea of fetish was sort of underground -- now you see it on every street corner," says Mol, whose resume includes two Woody Allen films, "Sweet and Lowdown" and "Celebrity."

Page's "lack of self-consciousness and openness with the camera is what created these images," Mol adds. "And the lack of shame. I kind of got behind that philosophy of Bettie's, which is very much 'What's the harm in it?'"

Page's image is considered so harmless now that it can be found on kitschy trinkets like lunchboxes, drink coasters and key chains -- even air fresheners.

Her once scandalous bondage flicks, "Teaserama" and "Striporama," are readily available on DVD. And last year Rene Zellweger appeared on the cover of W magazine in Page-like bangs and black hair.

The Bettie Page aesthetic has become so acceptable that the Cinematheque of the Great Neck Arts Center in suburban Long Island, N.Y., boasts of its current exhibit of Page memorabilia, including a vintage photo of Page bound and gagged in a black bustier and stockings.

In "Notorious," Mol and director Mary Harron replicate some of Page's most legendary photo shoots. Mol so inhabits the character that at times it's hard to tell some of the film's grainy, faux-vintage footage apart from the real thing.

But Mol was hardly Harron's first choice for the role.

"She wasn't on my original list at all, because I never thought of her as Bettie Page," says the director, whose films include "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho." "Gretchen's blond and very slender and you wouldn't look at her and say, 'You must play Bettie Page,' who was one of those real '50s curvy models.

"When we couldn't find the right person, we decided to abandon preconceptions and look at people we hadn't thought of," Harron adds. "She came in and her very first audition was so wonderful, so magical. She had this sweetness and innocence, but also something sexy and a little dark."

Mol got the look down and worked on her Southern accent to play the Tennessee-born Page, whose voice -- heard in vintage '70s interviews -- shocked her because "it didn't match the sunny dispositions I had been seeing. It was gravely, earthy and melancholic."

Mol also had to adopt Page's famous openness, shooting several scenes topless and a few fully nude.

"She had a very good attitude, because if she didn't she couldn't play Bettie Page," Harron says. "Photographers who knew Bettie said she was never happier than when walking around in nature in the woods naked. She was a nature worshipper. She had that very natural attitude."

But despite Harron's efforts, Mol never did any research with Page herself. The former pin-up, who retreated from the spotlight and "found God," isn't completely happy about the film.

"Mary had been working on the script for about eight years," Mol says. "She tried to be in touch with Bettie, but Bettie had sold her life rights to another production. It's kind of hazy whether or not it was her own choice not to be involved, or a legal choice."

Page's story has long been Hollywood catnip. After all, it's hard to resist a tale that involves sex, a churchgoing beauty turned model and a 1955 investigation by a senator, Democrat Estes Kefauver, eager to make hay for a presidential run.

At one point, Martin Scorsese was reportedly interested in making a Page biopic, but it never materialized.

Interest in Page's career reignited in the late '70s, when bound volumes of her photos introduced her to a new generation. But her image really exploded after 1987, when a fanzine called The Betty Pages (her name was frequently misspelled) spent six full years idolizing her.

Hipsters across the country incorporated her severe bangs, dark hair and outrageous sexuality into grunge fashion and culture. Bombshells like "Charmed" star Rose McGowan and postmodern stripper Dita Von Teese essentially stole her look outright.

The Page styles that continue to inform our notions about provocative dress came from an era when overt sexuality was taboo, but far from stamped out.

"Contrary to popular belief, sex wasn't invented in the 1970s," says Karen Essex, co-author of the book "Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend."

"I think that people have always been fanatically interested in sex, and even the fetishized sex that Bettie demonstrated in her photographs," Essex adds. "Bettie embodied a certain freedom about sexuality, and that was ahead of its time."

Although Page stopped modeling after she got religion, that's still an idea she agrees with.

"Being in the nude isn't a disgrace unless you're promiscuous about it," Page recently told the Los Angeles Times in a rare interview. "After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird, too."