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SEARCHING FOR BETTIE PAGE A `NOTORIOUS' LOOK AT '50S PINUP ICON COMFORTABLE IN THE SKIN SHE'S IN.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

The hunt for the real Bettie Page continues even as those searching for the notorious pinup icon of the 1950s confess they'll never find her.

The biography of the model is contradictory - deliberately evasive. The lady herself, now 82, lives reclusively, rarely granting interviews or allowing herself to be photographed.

Quotes on her official Web site, www.Bettiepage.com, offer such tantalizing nuggets as "I love to swim in the nude and roam around the house in the nude. You're just as free as a bird!" and "I don't know what they mean by an icon. I never thought of myself as being that. ... I was just modeling, thinking of as many different poses as possible. I made more money modeling than being a secretary." Her career started late and ended early, following - of all things - a United States Senate investigation into the effects of pornography on the nation's youth.

Which leaves the photographs themselves. A Google search turns up hundreds of Page poses - both of the cheesecake and fetish variety. She posed for Playboy and for other men's magazines carrying titles like Eyeball, Escapade and Wink. There's Bettie in bikini, Bettie in lingerie, Bettie nude, Bettie in bondage.

A new movie opening today, "The Notorious Bettie Page" looks at Page the woman as well as the sexual icon. But those who study vintage trends say that Page's popularity hasn't faltered since she disappeared from the public eye in the late 1950s. (She participated in an "E! True Hollywood Story" in 1998, but was interviewed off-camera and in hidden light).

At the Eagle Rock-based Pink Kitty photography studios, which specializes in re-creating vintage pinup photography, co-owner Lori Mann has no shortage of housewives and working women looking to re-create themselves photographically as dominatrix. Page, Mann says, is their inspiration.

"She's a little more like the modern woman than the old pinups," says Mann. "She was vulnerable and had curves and was sweet and all of that, but she also did the dominatrix thing. To a whole new generation, she is new. She reminds them of rockabilly and little bit of Gothic." Gretchen Mol, who plays Page in "The Notorious Bettie Page" calls Page "the greatest pinup," characterizing her as an artist utterly connected to her creative zone.

"She did tap into something, I think, that other models didn't, and a lot of that was because she seemed to be getting just as much out of it as she was giving," says Mol. "She seemed to be completely enjoying herself when she was posing in a way that I don't know she was able to in living her life." The actress, who re-created many of Page's poses for the film and studied several hundred others, has a favorite Page photo: an image that she discovered on eBay by a private photographer. Mol purchased the photo and gave it to the film's director, Mary Harron.

"(Page) has her hair in a ponytail, and she's kind of twisted on the floor naked, just kind of looking over her shoulder," says Mol. "She's not even looking at the camera, just looking off. She looks like she's about 10 years old, but she's also so beautiful. There's something in her eyes that you didn't see often in those photographs that's just beautiful." Harron knows the photograph. "It's almost like a little sad, interior rare glimpse of her," the director agrees.

Ultimately, Page's pictures - public and private - give away everything ... and nothing. The dark-haired model with her generous curves and signature bangs maintained an oddly sweet-natured "Hello world!" gaze even as she's trussed up in ropes or black leather or brandishing a whip.

"There are contradictions in the photos themselves," says Harron. "Who is this person? Where did she come from? What's going on with her?" The film offers a few insights but no pat answers. We meet Page sitting in a hallway, waiting to give testimony before Sen. Estes Kefauver's Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. A court officer inquires if she needs assistance. Thank you, but no, returns Page, a model of Southern graciousness. I'll be just fine on my own.

And indeed she is. The film flashes back to Page's upbringing in Depression-era Tennessee. Sexually abused by her father and following a failed marriage, Page moves to New York and ends up finding regular work in the city's camera clubs. An aspiring actress, Page eventually takes up with Movie Star News, the Hollywood memorabilia distributors run by Irving Klaw and his half-sister Paula. It was Paula who also took the racier bondage photos for private clients that the Kefauver investigation targeted.

The Bettie Page who moves through the film is a self-possessed and staunchly religious young woman for whom no employment-related request was particularly shocking. You want me nude? No problem. Corsets? Spiked heels? Here are my measurements.

"If nothing else, Bettie's lack of self-consciousness was at the top of the list of things to capture," says Mol who spends a great deal of "Bettie Page" in some form of dishabille. "A lot of what I had to do was physical and was a kind of choreography almost. I had to kind of rehearse how she posed and how she moved, and then I had to sort of let it go to have some freedom in it." Mol says that a stint playing celebrity-seeking murderess Roxie Hart in Broadway's "Chicago" just prior to starting work on "Bettie Page" helped her get in touch with her inner pinup.

"I did have to kind of find that part of myself," Mol says. "There almost wasn't time for my own issues." She has "issues"?

"Oh sure, don't we all?" she returns. "Most of the time when someone puts a camera on you, instead of springing to life there's a little piece of you that goes, 'How do I look?' and so I had to find out in a hurry how to get rid of that.

Mol, a svelte blonde from New England whose work in "Rounders" and "The 13th Floor" brought her early buzz, bears little physical resemblance to Page. Even having met Harron previously for a possible role in the director's "American Psycho," Mol said she knew that landing the role of Bettie Page was "a long shot." "I did connect with the character in the script. although I didn't know if physically and externally I could pull it off," Mol says. "I felt emotionally there was something I connected to. I just went in hoping maybe Mary would catch it." Harron did, noting that Mol came to the audition with some Page-isms mastered.

"She already had some of the body language down. She has a natural knack for that, a talent for posing like Bettie did," says Harron. "I think she had a sweetness also. She was able to convey an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness. There was also this sort of detachment about Bettie, the sense that she was in her own bubble." Neither Harron nor her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, ever met their subject, although Harron says Page has seen the film (which is cited on Page's Web site.) And by the time she was cast, Mol said the prospect of using Page as a resource had also passed.

"I wanted to respect her privacy," Mol says, "and I also thought there's a lot of material there, a lot of source material trying to understand her. At a certain point, I almost had so much information, I had to let go. I kind of had to allow it to be my interpretation on some level, too."

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) PINUP GIRL

A peek at `The Notorious Bettie Page'

(2) Bettie Page, Playboy's January 1955 playmate of the month, sunbathes in a country lane in this 1950s photograph by Weegee. A new movie about her life opens today.

Getty Images

(3 -- 4) Despite a lack of physical resemblance, the blond Gretchen Mol, below, drew on wigs, wardrobe and attitude to play the title character, above and on the cover, in ``The Notorious Bettie Page.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 14, 2006
Words:1359
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