Onetime ‘It’ Girl Back as Bettie

In The Notorious Bettie Page, Gretchen Mol gives a juicy performance as the palpitating pin-up girl from Tennessee whose provocative poses turned pop culture upside down and led to a Senate investigation into pornography. Written, directed and documented by fearless Mary Harron (American Psycho), the movie provides us with a titillating keyhole peek at the innocent sexuality of 1955 and the evil religious hysteria fueled by the anally retentive right-wing do-gooders who tried to suppress it. I thought we grew up after Bettie Page’s ordeals in garter belts and mesh pantyhose, but considering where we are today with a government of control freaks that grows more intolerant of civil rights every day, the movie proves that everything old is new again—although maybe not so innocent.

In retrospect, Bettie Page was no more a provocateur than Peggy Ann Garner. Her rise to infamy was, in fact, largely accidental. The movie follows her from a strict, conservative Protestant childhood in Nashville to New York City, where she pursues her dreams of an acting career. To make ends meet, Bettie first posed for a police officer with a camera on the beach at Coney Island. Studying the Stanislavsky “method” by day in Greenwich Village acting classes and stripping to her lingerie at night, one scantily-clad modeling job led to another until her flesh-and-fantasy magazine covers were all over the newsstands in Times Square, and it wasn’t long before she was posing for sadomasochistic fetish photos staged by a brother-sister team (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) who exploited her.

Those raunchy bondage pics may seem corny and dated now—quaint, really—but they attracted the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver, who accused Bettie Page of inciting lust in the blackest hearts of horny men everywhere. After playing the liberal, muckraking television icon Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, David Strathairn brilliantly plays the other side of the coin as the smarmy Senator from Tennessee whose hatred of female pulchritude was as suspicious as a cobra everyone thought was defanged. For a devout churchgoer who believed in Jesus and couldn’t tolerate vulgar language or obscene gestures, Bettie found herself dragged shamefully through the mire and labeled “the pinup queen of porn.”

In 1958, she underwent a sudden religious epiphany and disappeared from the public eye forever. She’s lost to us now, but wherever she is today, one assumes Bettie Page is still getting by on vitality, faith and an unstoppable sense of humor. She’s become an icon in the worlds of fashion, publishing, comic books, marketing, product placement and the Internet. Her bondage films are available on DVD. For all of her fame, she probably hasn’t got a dime.

As the mislabeled Lorelei of sin whose only real crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Gretchen Mol plays the notorious Bettie as a one-woman ruby-fruit jungle of lacquered hair and fire-engine-red lipstick who was a model of good-natured sweetness and fun. No matter what lurid tasks she performed for the camera, she was always discreetly posed and radiated poise and joy in every costume. (In boots, whip and dominatrix drag, she seemed less dangerous than a female jockey at Churchill Downs.) While charting Bettie’s accidental journey to X-rated stardom, Ms. Harron recounts the darker chapters of her personal history, such as physical and sexual abuse, but the filmmaker stops short of psychoanalysis. Bettie is like a Betty Crocker ad, making Jell-O in panties and a bra. This light touch is welcome, because this is a political film about 50’s hypocrisy, rendering the elements of its story and viewpoints through the most delicate modulations of tone. The naturalism of the period’s Super 8 home-movie ambiance is neatly juxtaposed with the lush Technicolor tapestries of 50’s Hollywood soap operas. Ms. Harron has managed to revive an era while telling a strange and compelling story. Like Bettie herself, the movie is wholesome and sexy at the same time. I liked it immensely.

Lovely, Sort Of

Nothing ever happens in Friends with Money, but a pleasant time is spent waiting. Heavily influenced by the overpopulated cinematic group-therapy sessions conducted by Robert Altman, writer-director Nicole Holofcener threads together a series of stories about Los Angeles thirtysomethings (well, a few will never see 40 again) collectively going through a series of early midlife crises that narrowly avoid sitcom-level clichés, thanks to clever dialogue and a terrific cast.

Despite ghastly, mewling songs by Rickie Lee Jones, the tales of three married couples and one hopelessly single friend (surprisingly well played by Jennifer Aniston) are intertwined with logic and realism instead of bad music, sight gags and one-liners. Christine and David (Catherine Keener and the marvelous Jason Isaacs) are married screenwriters collaborating on a script about a couple whose marriage is falling apart. Reading their roles aloud to each other from their computers, life imitates art before they can dismantle their hard drives. Jane and Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney) are a prosperous designer of boutique fashions and her husband, a clothes-conscious swish who sells organic bath products with pieces of fruit in them and who is always getting patted and pinched by other men. The gnawing suspicion that Aaron is gay has plummeted Jane into a state of clinical depression. Jane and Aaron are best friends, but somehow it’s not enough. Rounding out this unbalanced sextet of “friends with money” are Franny and Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann), the richest of them all. It isn’t always clear what these people did to earn their comfort-zone status, but there’s no question about the ease with which they flaunt it.

The only one whose bank account (and life) seems to have slipped through the holes in the pockets of her outdated Gloria Vanderbilt jeans is the group mascot Olivia (Ms. Aniston), a former schoolteacher who has chucked her job to work as a maid. Cleaning other people’s toilets and collecting free samples of department-store cosmetics, Olivia is a mutt, and her friends are a communal rescue shelter. The fact that she’s the only free spirit in a gang of miserable inmates imprisoned by the society pages of the Los Angeles Times is just one of this film’s pleasant ironies. Olivia smokes pot, has no fashion sense or romantic prospects and actually enjoys rifling through other people’s closets. What she does with one client’s vibrator you must discover for yourself, but I will say Ms. Aniston has rarely been photographed with such mischievous candor. Her detractors can eat crow: She is charming throughout.

Ms. Holofcener’s camera moves in and out of her characters’ lives like a dust mop swirls around furniture legs, while her dialogue provides insights and flashes of revelation along the way. As a writer, she has an uncanny ear for the way people really talk, even to their mirrors; as a director, she depends on entirely too many annoying close-ups. But in the sharply observed nuances of her characters’ neuroses, and in the unforced way she dismantles stereotypes until nobody ends up doing exactly what you expect them to do, she manages to make both slobs and snobs seem happily appealing. The odd result is that while you applaud Friends with Money, you may also feel lucky you don’t have any friends with money to call your own.

Boots for a Queen

With so few films on the market that come anywhere close to real entertainment, Kinky Boots, a British import in the delectable tradition of Calendar Girls and Mrs. Henderson Presents, is a cause for celebration. I can scarcely begin to prepare you for all the fun you have in store from this unexpected feel-good surprise about a dreary shoe factory in Northampton that re-invents itself by cornering a niche market for oversized glitter boots for drag queens with big feet. It is all the more exhilarating because it’s absolutely true: In fact, it’s dedicated to the men and women of the original Kinky Boot Factory, most of whom are still rubbing their eyes over their unpredictable windfall. So will you.

Charlie (the excellent Australian actor Joel Edgerton) inherits his father’s business in the Midlands, an established shoe company specializing in traditional men’s shoes for four generations. His fiancée wants him to dump this albatross, but out of loyalty and respect, Charlie is determined to make his dad proud. Trouble is, the company is bankrupt, clearly in need of an overhaul, and poor Charlie is forced to sack a chunk of the personnel.

But the day is saved on a business trip to London, where Charlie has a chance encounter with a rambunctious, feisty black drag performer named Lola, the star of a raunchy Soho transvestite revue. “The first thing you notice about a person is their shoes,” his dad always used to say, and the first thing Charlie notices about Lola is that he can hardly squeeze his manly arches into his murderous stilettos. A light bulb goes off in Charlie’s tousled head: Why not develop a niche market for proper women’s shoes that can support the weight and body size of a cross-dresser?

When Lola travels out to the Midlands to model and design the new line, the hairy factory workers who are forced to switch gears and sew new thigh-high knife-point heels on patterns of flaming red lizard and electric-blue sequins are mortified to the point of violence. What Lola needs is an ally, and he finds one in the unlikeliest of places—the factory’s most homophobic employee. What happens next is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets The Full Monty.

By the time it all ends up at the international shoe fair in Milan, you really get to know Charlie’s detractors, who beg him to dump the factory, and Charlie, who re-mortgages his house to save it. Most importantly, you get to know the flamboyant and utterly human Lola, whose real name is Simon and who almost became a heavyweight-boxing champion, a profession that didn’t work with strapless cocktail dresses. Lola is played with great relish by the diverse and powerful British sensation Chiwetel Ejiofor, who electrified audiences everywhere in Amistad and Dirty Pretty Things and is currently Denzel Washington’s cop partner in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Lola, a vehicle more challenging than anything he has ever done, is big, brave, funny and more of a man than anyone in pants, and he does all of his own musical numbers. (“These Boots Are Made for Walking” stops the show.)

The direction by Julian Jerrold, making his debut, is too predictable in its political correctness, and I’m not sure I buy the way everyone in the film undergoes a magical self-improvement after discovering marabou feathers. But Kinky Boots is hilarious and poignant enough to suspend skepticism and erase doubts. It adds up to one helluva movie picnic, and there isn’t an ant in sight. Onetime ‘It’ Girl Back as Bettie