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Interview with Mary Harron, the Writer/Director of The Notorious Bettie Page

Harron Continues to Tackle Edgy Subject Matter in Her Latest Film


Interview with Mary Harron, the Writer/Director of The Notorious Bettie Page

Writer/director Mary Harron on the set of The Notorious Bettie Page.

Photo credit: Abbott Genser, © 2005 Picturehouse
Writer/director Mary Harron brings the story of one of the most fascinating pin-up girls in American history to the big screen in The Notorious Bettie Page. Starring Gretchen Mol as the legendary 1950s model who made a name for herself in fetish poses, the film follows Page’s transformation from the daughter of conservative religious parents to aspiring actress to the vibrant young woman whose provocative photos graced the pages of men’s magazines and made her the target of a Senate investigation into pornography.

A Film Years in the Making: Harron first became interested in Bettie Page in 1993. After reading up on Page, Harron was inspired to tell her story on film. Along with co-writer Guinevere Turner, Harron spent years honing the script and figuring out which parts of Page’s life to focus on. Although Page’s career and personal life would seem to be the perfect fodder for a feature film, Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page is the first theatrically released movie based on the iconic model.

“There were several projects, I think, there was a competing project with ours that was around for many years that wanted to do the life of Bettie Page,” explained Harron. “It’s kind of not easy to put someone’s life on film and create a narrative out of it. But I’m surprised more hasn’t been done about that whole era because burlesque is so popular now. Certain things have had such a rival. And then, of course, people like Madonna have been taking imagery from Bettie Page films and photographs for years.”

Honing the Script: Harron and co-writer Turner had to make tough decisions on what to include and what not to in order for the film to flow narratively. “It was very tough because for several years we had scripts that did a lot of her early life, like how she met her first husband. A lot of that romance. We loved that material but dramatically the film never really got going until she got to New York. That was where it felt like the film really started, when she comes into the Klaws studio. We then spent a couple of years trying scripts which took in the far darker aspects of her later life. This would be like 15 years after she stopped modeling – 15, 20 years. Where she had a couple of bad marriages and had a period of mental illness. We went into that but then it became very depressing. It became also very contradictory also because we’d jump from kind of the lighter end of the ‘50s forward and suddenly you don’t really understand how this woman became that. You have to show this long decline. It wasn’t like she suddenly had a period of mental illness. It was this long, slow process of things going wrong in her life in her 40s.

Page shies away from interviews and Harron believes there are a number of reasons why. “I think that [there are] certain things she doesn’t want to talk about in her life. And I think also that she likes this image of when she was young. I think she really does miss her youth and beauty, and she just wants people to be able to think about that. You know, it’s depressing to her for people to focus on her in her old age.”

The Real Bettie Page: According to Harron, Page was not involved with this film because she was attached to a rival project. “I would have loved to have met her and talked to her and there are certain things I would have loved to have asked her about, but on the other hand it’s a double-edge sword. When you have an official portrait of someone, if they say they don’t want something in there, then you’re really in a bind. And there certain things in her life that she would have been uncomfortable with us showing, I think. I think in the end it was freeing.”

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