When director Mary Harron was casting the 2000 film “American Psycho,” she met with Gretchen Mol to offer her a role, but the actress had to back out because of a scheduling conflict.
A few years later, when Harron was casting “The Notorious Bettie Page,” she thought about Mol briefly, but then rejected the idea because she didn’t think the actress could look like the controversial 1950s pinup.
“Shame on me,” the director said. “I was trying to work within the boundaries of physical believability, and I was focused on a list of every brunette in Hollywood. All I remembered about Gretchen was that she was this very slim blond girl.”
Once she had exhausted the ranks of dark-haired actresses, Harron gave Mol a call.
“When she came in to read, I realized that it wasn’t about looking like Bettie as much as it was about capturing the essence of Bettie.”
The 33-year-old actress, better known for a stunning 1998 Vanity Fair cover (prematurely announcing her as Hollywood’s new “it” girl) than her film roles (“Rounders,” “The Shape of Things,” “Celebrity”), said she also questioned whether she was right physically for the role.
“But then I read the script” (by Harron and Guinevere Turner), “and I saw that they were talking about a different Bettie Page than I had heard about. They weren’t just talking about the public Bettie that we know from her photos and movies. They were talking about the real Bettie Page.
“In that case, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I put on some clothes that made me look a little curvier, and went in for the audition. I brought along a photo of me with dark hair, but I didn’t go for the whole get-up because that’s not who she really is.”
Page, who is 82 and living in seclusion “somewhere” in Southern California, modeled from 1950 to 1957, and is perhaps the most famous of that era’s pinups (unless you count Marilyn Monroe). With her trademark black bangs, she posed in magazines (she was a Playboy centerfold in 1955), on postcards and in underground films. Occasionally, she posed topless or nude, but is best remembered for wearing lingerie and bondage outfits.
In 1955, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, targeted Page during well-publicized hearings investigating pornography’s effect on the nation’s youth. Although she never got a chance to testify before the subcommittee, the incident helped turn her into a legend.
She is more famous now than she was then, and that has translated into a lucrative second career. Her image is marketed internationally.
“I think she’s an iconic figure,” Harron said, “because of the mystery and scandal that surrounded her. The contradictions in Bettie are the same contradictions that existed in America in the 1950s. Her image was dangerous, but at the same time, there was an innocence about her. The same could be said for how America approached sex in the 1950s.”
Mol acknowledged that she identified with Page on some level because of her own experience with the Vanity Fair cover.
“They put out that powerful and provocative image of me, but that was not who I was. And it was definitely too soon in my career to have that kind of an image out there.
“I was new to the business, and it confused people. I’m a very sensitive person, and I could feel an attitude when I walked in a room. I didn’t have time to introduce myself. They already had an opinion of me based on the image.
“I think Bettie had the same problem. She was a sweet-natured country girl, but people had a different impression of her from the photos and films. They thought of her only as a bad-girl vixen with whips.”
Page did not participate in this film project, Harron said, because she was involved in another film based on her life. She reportedly has seen “The Notorious Bettie Page,” but has not commented on whether she liked it.
“I hope she liked what I did,” Mol said, “but even if she didn’t, I would love to meet her.”