Cast: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor, Jonathan Woodward, Norman Reedus, Cara Seymour, John Cullum, Matt McGrath, Tara Subkoff, Kevin Carroll, Dallas Roberts, Austin Pendleton, Ann Dowd, Victor Slezak, Ed Jewett, Lars Hanson, Molly Moore, Michael Gaston, Alejandro Chaban
In 1955, in New York City, a man enters a newsstand featuring men’s magazines. He asks for unusual material, and when the clerk shows him pictures of girls in restraints and underwear he announces that he’s a Police detective and performs an arrest, while the other customers run away from the place. In the United States Senate, Estes Kefauver (Strathairn) starts an investigation on the effects of pornography on American youth. The screen fades back to 1936 Tennessee. Bettie Page (Moore) is a teenage girl who goes to church with her mother (Dowd) and siblings. A grownup Bettie (Mol), a pretty and outgoing girl, meets Billy Neal (Reedus) and dreams of going to college. In 1949, after her marriage to Billy goes sour and some bad things happen to her, Bettie takes a bus to New York City, seeking a new start in life. She wins beauty contests and, at the beach in Coney Island, meets Jerry Tibbs (Carroll), a young policeman who asks her to pose for him. The beach photos Tibbs takes that day capture Bettie’s distinctive beauty. Tibbs is a part-time photographer, and he asks Bettie to pose for him again. Tibbs encourages Bettie’s natural talent for modeling, suggesting a new hairdo with bangs and teaching her how to pose for cheesecake photos. Bettie agrees to pose for camera clubs, where photographers employ models to pose for sexy pictures, for men’s magazines or for private collections. Bettie is stunning in lingerie or a two-piece swimsuit. Her attractiveness, and her ability to fluidly adapt her demeanor and facial expression, so that no two pictures are alike, soon make her a favorite model. Black and white photography blends with vintage footage to capture the feel of the times, with color used in the more cheerful scenes. Bettie joins an actor’s studio, seeking a career in motion pictures. She meets Irving Klaw (Bauer), who with his sister Paula (Taylor), runs Movie Star News, a business that sells movie still photos. The Klaws discovered a demand for revealing photos of movie starlets, and augment those supplied by Hollywood studios with photos of local girls they take themselves. Paula is the photographer and Irving the director of their custom photo enterprise. The Klaws hire Bettie to pose for special pictures that they sell to private customers and through mail order. In high heels and underwear, sometimes tied up, or in mock fights with other girls, Bettie’s fresh, girl-next-door looks appeal to men like John Willie (Harris), who have an interest in pictures of subjugated naughty-but-nice damsels. Many photographers seek her out to pose in swimsuits, lingerie, or nude. Bettie’s romantic interludes are not ideal, and her efforts to become a Hollywood actress do not pan out, but she is very successful as a pinup model. Bunny Yeager, a former model and prominent glamour photographer, hires her for a photo shoot in Florida. Bettie’s photo is on the centerfold of the January 1955 Playboy. At the height of her success, Bettie becomes embroiled in a battle between Irving Klaw and postal authorities that seek to shut down his mail order business for violation of censorship regulations. When Senator Kefauver’s Senate committee summons Bettie to testify, she faces the situation. Background events, television images, and dialog capture the ambiance of the era. Cinematography by Mott Hupfel. The atmospheric soundtrack features tunes from Patsy Cline, Perez Prado, Julie London, and other period artists.