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Out from under it

A flash of early-career heat leaves Gretchen Mol in prime position to delve behind the high-gloss facade of `50s pinup Bettie Page.

April 09, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

IF anyone understands the treacherous power of the pinup, it's Gretchen Mol. In 1998, the young actress graced the cover of Vanity Fair, wearing only a see-through slip and a very dangerous headline: "Is She Hollywood's Next It Girl?"

When the films that had prompted Vanity Fair's cover choice -- "Rounders" and Woody Allen's "Celebrity" -- fizzled, no one banged on then-Editor Graydon Carter's door demanding a retraction, but Mol has lived with the "It Girl" legacy for years.

So there is something fitting about her decision to play the ultimate professional pinup in HBO Films' "The Notorious Bettie Page," which comes to theaters Friday. While the women are physically dissimilar -- in her prime, Page was tall, dark and stacked while Mol is fair and slender -- they share a strange, almost dissonant cheerfulness about a business that in all its myriad forms can appeal to, and bring out, the absolute worst in people.

The similarity between the women came as a surprise to Mol. When her agent sent her the script, she initially could not see why anyone would cast her as a woman who became a noir icon through the naughty and quasi-S/M cheesecake work she did in the '50s. "Physically, it was certainly a stretch," Mol says, "and I had the cartoon image of Bettie as being very tough, you know, the Bad Girl. Then I came to learn more about her, and I realized that emotionally it was a very good role for me."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanity Fair editor: A Sunday Calendar section article about actress Gretchen Mol referred to Graydon Carter as the former editor of Vanity Fair. Carter remains editor of the magazine.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 16, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanity Fair editor: An article about actress Gretchen Mol last Sunday referred to Graydon Carter as the former editor of Vanity Fair. Carter remains editor of the magazine.

Ostensibly, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Page's strange but prolific photographic career, which ended in 1957 -- after she became part of a series of Senate hearings aimed at pornography, Page experienced a change of heart about her work and returned to her religious roots. But more pointedly, the movie and Mol's performance capture the walking (and kneeling and spanking) enigma that was Bettie Page -- a sweet-natured, highly moral young woman who considered the corsets and spike heels just costumes, the whips and ball gags simply props and the genre of fetish photography an extension of her modeling career.

"After looking at the photos and watching the film loops I realized there really was this childlike quality about Bettie," Mol says. "There was the leather and the whips but always in the middle was this very friendly kind of smile. It wasn't that she was naive," she adds, "but she didn't choose to judge the people who wanted the pictures or think about what they would do with them."

Likewise, the film does not delve too deeply into the inner workings of such an apparent contradiction -- early sexual abuse is hinted at, as is an abusive marriage and a gang molestation. But neither Mol nor writer-director Mary Harron attempt to psychoanalyze their subject. Instead, they simply show the facets of Page's life and, compared with the stiffness and pomposity of the Method acting classes she struggles through, the ambience of the photo shoots is friendly and professional, ropes and stilettos not withstanding.

"Mary believes that at the center of everyone is a mystery," Mol says. "And the idea that you can sum up a person in two hours, to say that this one event or this one person is what made such and such happen, is ridiculous."


Redefining success

AFTER 10 years in the business, Mol knows one thing for certain: Few things turn out the way you expect them to. She learned early on that if prediction is a perilous pastime, explanation is almost as empty.

After the It-ness of the Vanity Fair cover failed to materialize, she found herself packaged as an actress famous for not becoming famous, nevermind that she continued to have a successful acting career.

"The hard part," she says of the acting life, "is letting go of caring what people think. It's good that I had that experience when I was young, that I learned what can happen because I know in my life what is important. I have been creative about finding places I can do my work, and I have taken great satisfaction from it."

The places she has found work include stage, screen and television. On Broadway, she starred in the final run of "Chicago" and Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things"; on TV, she was part of David E. Kelley's short-lived "Girls Club" and the remake of "The Magnificent Ambersons." In films, she has played opposite the likes of Sean Penn ("Sweet and Lowdown") and Ray Liotta and Joseph Fiennes ("Forever Mine").

"I always wanted to be an actor," she says. "I mean, during the second grade science fair we were supposed to do a project about how the planets revolved around the sun and I, of course, wanted to be the sun. But I don't have that problem, of comparing myself to some image. I feel like, in any career, if you can get ahold of one or two great parts, then you are having a great career."

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