DATE April 12, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Seymour Hersh discusses his article in The New Yorker
about Bush administration's plan for possible air attack against
Iran to stop its nuclear program
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It was just a couple of days ago that my guest Seymour Hersh reported in The
New Yorker that the Bush administration has intensified planning for a
possible major air attack against Iran to stop its nuclear program. Yesterday
the president of Iran announced that it has joined the nuclear countries of
the world. It has succeeded in enriching uranium. Although Iran says it is
for nuclear power, the international community believes Iran is working on
nuclear weapons in defiance of the United Nations.
Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the My Lai
massacre in Vietnam. In 2004, he broke the story of abuses in Abu Ghraib
prison. I asked him if yesterday's announcement by the Iranian president put
Hersh's current New Yorker report in a new light.
Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH: The fact is that what he said yesterday was old hat.
They have already done that before. They have--they have successfully
enriched uranium in a small pilot project, and that's what they did yesterday.
They ran a string of 164 centrifuges, which was more complicated. They ran it
for a certain number of hours. There is a great deal of skepticism in the
American intelligence community, also among our allies, and also among the
International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, offices in Vienna, as to how
competent the Iranians are in all of this. They're--they--they're certainly
years and years away from being able to master the process of enriching
uranium at a large scale--thousands and thousands of centrifuges running
constantly. You have to do that to generate enough uranium to make a weapon.
So they are not there yet.
GROSS: Now you reported in The New Yorker that the Bush administration has
intensified planning for a possible attack. You know, newspapers around the
world have been summarizing your article. But I want to ask you to give us a
very brief summary for anyone who hasn't read your article or read the summary
Mr. HERSH: Well, the one part the newspapers and the--and previous
interviews I have done--interviews have gotten wrong--not wrong, it's just the
emphasis--they keep on saying the article says that Bush is planning to use
tactical nuclear weapons in Iraq. Well, what happened--what has happened, of
course, is that there has been--there's always contingency planning. This is
a staple of any major superpower. We do contingency planning for everything.
What--in the last six months, I count--I'm not good on time--four
months--something in the last recent period, the planning's become
operational. It has gone to the next phase, which is far more than just some
vague contingency planning on the shelf. They are specifically drawing up
target lists. And as I wrote in the article, we've sent teams of Americans
undercover to begin to acquire what kind of information we need on the ground
about the targets we may be bombing from the air. And so, it's really
escalating. That doesn't mean the president decided to go to war, but it has
put everything up a notch.
As part of that planning, the military when they are asked by the president to
destroy something give him a panoply of options. One of the major facilities
that we know about--and I should add that much of what Iran does in the
nuclear business we don't know much about, our intelligence isn't perfect--but
the one place we have a fix on is called Natanz, where the enrichment that the
Iranians announced yesterday took place. It's an underground bunker complex,
quite big, 75 feet underground under hard rock, a couple of--a little less
than a hundred miles away from Tehran. In order to successfully bomb that,
the president was told, we can guarantee 100 percent destruction with attack
nuke. That was in a paper.
A few weeks or so afterwards, the joint chiefs realizing that this is, you
know, perhaps even all along knowing that was just an option and, wacko, you
don't want to start using nuclear weapon in the Middle East against a Muslim
country, went back to the White House and said, `Let's get this out of our
plan.' They tried to walk it back out. The White House then said, `No,
you--you...(unintelligible)...let's keep it in there.' At this point, there
was a lot of tensions among some generals and admirals--I can't say everybody
but among some--about this, simply because they do not want the nuclear option
in the package.
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. HERSH: And...
GROSS: Is this like a crossing a line that has been taboo until now?
Mr. HERSH: It's a lot of complicated reasons. One would be among many
military people, it's--believe it or not--`Real men don't use nukes.' You
know, we go out and get them hand to hand or whatever. The distinction
between nukes and bombs is a little--there is one they see. And, secondly,
there's a huge disconnect. We are seeing signs of it now in public. Various
generals and--at least three generals, two Army guys and a Marine--in the last
few weeks writing after they retired, writing very critical essays about
Rumsfeld. There is a huge disconnect between the military leadership and the
civilian leadership in the Pentagon. That's for sure. The civilians in the
Pentagon--many of what we would call neoconservatives, very hard-liners, the
American enterprise school, the guys who brought us Ahmed Chalabi, that crowd
is still there.
There's also a huge disconnect I'm learning between the sen--many of the
senior leaders and the White House. And so, therefore, the military guys
simply wanted this option. And there is also an ethical sense. You don't
use--you don't even plan or talk about using a nuclear weapon in this kind of
a situation. We are talking about a pre-emptive, unilateral targeting of
another country that isn't nuclear at this point. Isn't a direct threat.
This changes the equation. Why would you even want to get into this kind of
thinking as a superpower? Particularly when there are other powers in the
country--in the world, six or seven other nuclear powers, why do you want to
decide that because you're the nuclear power you can target anybody?
So they tried to walk it back, as I said. If what I wrote--and things may
change because there is a tremendous amount of heat on this, because of this
article, on the institution--believe me there is--inside. But the chairman,
or one of the senior officials in the Joint Chiefs was going to do a paper,
take it to the president and insist that--and basically give him a formal
recommendation that nukes--nuke planning should be off the board. At that
point, the president would have no option, it's believed, but to go along.
You can't countermand what the military tells you directly.
And if it was--if this--if the president still insisted on keeping the nuclear
option in the planning, guys were saying they would resign. Not necessarily
publicly, but they would resign. It just may mean taking retirement early,
but they would get out of there.
GROSS: Is it your impression that most of the military leaders now are
opposed to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Iran?
Mr. HERSH: I just can't say that. I just--I have a very small window. I
talk to people--but you have to understand the people I talk to, I have known
some of them for decades and the people I talk to are inside, they are very
loyal to the United States, and they are loyal to the military--the function
of the military. They are almost idealistic. They are troubled by this
government as much as many of the people on the outside are. They are
troubled by the president's inability to cope with the reality about Iraq.
They don't want Iran to go nuclear, but they don't know why the president is
choosing now to say, as he has said repeatedly in public, that if Iran crosses
a red line--and the president's red line is simply what the Iranians announced
they did yesterday, any enrichment of uranium he said is a red line. He's
also said in the last few weeks that even gaining the knowledge of the bomb is
a red line. And he has also in the last few weeks repeatedly said all options
are on the table. That is he and the vice president, Mr. Cheney, also said
that all options are on the table.
The bellicosity out of America is stunning. It inevitably results in the
Iranians concluding that `The faster we can get going on this nuclear
business, the better off we are because these guys are coming.'
GROSS: You write that there is a growing conviction among members of the US
military and in the international community, that President Bush's ultimate
goal in a nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. And one former
defense official said the military planning is based on a belief that a
sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and
leave the public to rise up and overthrow the government. And I am wondering
how the problems we are having in Iraq now and the loss of confidence that the
American public has in the war and the fact that Iraq seems to be either in or
on the verge of civil war--seems to be affecting the Bush administration
thinking on the use of force in Iran. Did anybody--did any of your sources
talk to you about that? About how what's happening in Iraq is figuring in to
plans for Iran?
Mr. HERSH: Well, one obvious very indirect response or reaction to the
complete debacle in Iraq is that people are talking to me so straight
forwardly about the plan in Iran. And, in other words, nobody wants to get us
into--the senior military guys who are perfectly aware of how bad things
are--and if you remember John Murtha, the congressman from Pennsylvania last,
I think, November, went public with a very, very stunning statement because he
is such a conservative and known to be so military--he's a ranking member of
the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which--he handles the money for
the budget for the Pentagon--when he said what he said, `The war is over, we
have got to get out,' he was reflecting because he is known to me and to
my--some of the people I know, my friends--as the insider. He is the one man
that the generals, the four-stars, the joint chiefs and others talk to
privately. In other words, they come and let down their hair. When he said
what he said, he was reflecting really the view. And it--of course, the next
rush you heard was the rush of the Democrats running away from him--his own
party. And nobody wanted to be associated with that which is stunning.
`We'll deal with Congress some other time in our life.' In any case, they know
it's basically a lose-lose in Iraq, and they don't want to see it replicated
in Iran. So that's one result.
I also think, if you are a president, I have been told--I haven't written
this, but I have been told--that one of the major reasons we are fighting so
hard to get rid of Jaafari, the Shiite leader who's been--who won more votes
and should be the prime minister of Iraq--the reason we are lobbying so hard,
to the point that even Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, and
Condoleezza Rice, our secretary of state, went publicly there the other week
to endorse another candidate, Mahdi--one reason is that Jaafari is going to
call for our withdrawal. He's going to--if he becomes prime minister, he's
now the ranking leading candidate for the job, he's won the most votes--if he
gets in office, he is going to ask us to get out. So if you're George Bush
and you are looking towards a summer in which you are going to explain to the
American people why after three years, perhaps a trillion dollars, 2500
lives--2400 hundred lives, anyway--five died yesterday. The death toll in
Iraq is growing enormously. It has been a very bad month for American
military men there. He has to explain to the American people why we are being
told to get out. I can understand politically the attractiveness of declaring
you are going to go after this mouthy Iranian president, who is always
threatening Israel and his nuclear weapon system. That would be seen as
perhaps, by the White House, as a plus, a political plus.
GROSS: My guest is investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. We are talking
about his article in the current New Yorker. More after a break. This is
GROSS: ...investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. His article in the current
New Yorker says that the Bush administration is intensifying planning for a
possible major air attack against Iran.
Now there's been a lot of responses to your report in The New Yorker that the
Bush administration is planning for an attack against Iran. Responses include
that `There are plans on the table, sure, every conceivable plan is on the
table. That doesn't mean we are seriously considering doing it.'
In The New York Times today, there is a report today that at the Pentagon and
elsewhere in the administration, officials say this prospect of military
action remains remote in the short term and highly problematic beyond that.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has simply said it's simply not useful to
get into fantasy land--your article basically being fantasy land. Do any of
these reactions jive with the impressions you've gotten from how serious the
Mr. HERSH: The planning is totally serious. And it's operational planning.
And people across the board--across the board, not only inside the American
military, inside the political establishment--I quote a senior member of the
House Appropriations Committee as saying that the president has begun briefing
various--mostly conservative--members of Congress about his plans and getting
This is going on, but let me say, Terry, the purpose in people talking to me
about this--and this whole issue came up a few months ago among people I have
known for many years--if my story works, the precise things you are hearing
now will be the result. The people talk to me in the hopes that if it was
taken public--I literally told one of the people who started to tell me about
what was going on and the fear they had of this messianic president is going
to do something--and I said to this one gentleman I have known for many
years--in a sense I said, `What the hell do you want me to do about it? I
can't write a speculative story.' And he said, `Go to Vienna. Talk to the
IAEA. Find out how far away they are. This is an issue that doesn't have to
be raised now. Go to work and do it.' And so I did. Because there was no
question--there is no question today that this president--not in the back of
the mind, in the front, right there--wants to do something. He wants to do
something about Iran.
I quoted people in the article as saying he views Ahmadinejad, the Iranian
president, as a--as Adolf Hitler. He sees this--Iran as Germany, Nazi Germany
in 1935. That's the analogy that they use in the White House. I have heard
two different people tell me that analogy who meet there. And so when you
have this sort of a situation, in other words, wouldn't the world have been
better off if we did something about Hitler then rather than letting the war
begin. This is the attitude that I was told existed. And I was also told, as
I said, you know, if my story works, we will have the kind of talk we have
from the Pentagon yesterday.
GROSS: Well, you know, in keeping with what you've been hearing about the
president's thoughts about how important it is to take action now and how he
compares the president of Iran to Hitler, Robert Baer, a former CIA agent
who--his memoir is the basis of the film "Syriana"--he told you that the
president of Iran and his revolutionary guards are, quote, "capable of making
a bomb, hiding it and launching it at Israel." He says, "They are apocalyptic
Shiites. These guys are nuts and there is no reason to back off." So...
Mr. HERSH: Yes.
GROSS: ...how strong is that feeling do you think within the intelligence
community, the military and the Bush White House, that you're dealing with
people who are nuts in Iran and if they get a bomb, the whole world is in
trouble, or in the short term, some countries, including Israel, are in
trouble, and so we can't back off.
Mr. HERSH: Baer is interesting on that because Robert Baer spent much of his
career--he was an undercover agent. He speaks very good Arabic. And he is
one of the few CIA agents who really could live undercover. And one of the
things he did, to his enormous credit, was in the '80s he really pursued the
assassination of a man named William Buckley, a CIA station chief who was
kidnapped and then killed. He also investigated the Iranian/Hezbollah
connection to the bombing of the American Embassy and the bombing of the
Marines in Lebanon in the early '80s. So, unfortunately, it is his belief
that the revolutionary guards and the Iranian president, right now,
Ahmadinejad, were deeply involved in this. And so he comes at it with a very
strong point of view that I respect.
Having said that, I can also tell you that in my reporting for this story, I
spent a lot of time with some of our allies, with those countries who, unlike
us, have had diplomatic relationships with Tehran and have done a great deal
of research and study and thinking about how they--how that government is run.
You know, we are a country that have--we have not had any diplomatic relations
since the shah was overthrown in, what, '79. Among our allies who have had
tremendous contact there and really lived there and watched the country, there
is a strong belief that the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, is really
in control. That the revolutionary guards, as powerful as they are--and they
are getting more powerful--still have to defer to him. And he is a very
difficult-to-understand cleric. Power structure in Iraq--in Iran--I read some
papers that--I mean, they're just--it's very nuanced how the decisions are
made. And when you get beyond just a simple who does what. But the fact is
that it is a very pragmatic country. Most people think that despite what the
president says of Iran right now--his mouthiness as I say--this is not Saddam
Hussein. They are not interested in being blown up by the United States.
They know what the cost of a war would be. They've come to us before. They
want to talk to us. They came in '03 and even talked, so I'm told, about
recognizing Israel. What's the price, what can we do? There's--they came and
wanted bilateral conversations with this president who refused to do. They
are still looking for bilateral conversations. Why not talk to the Iranians?
GROSS: Three retired generals have called for the resignation of Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld: Anthony Zinni, Paul Eaton and Gregory Newbold. Do
you have any idea from all of your sources if that is likely to happen and how
much--also like how much discontent is there within the military at Rumsfeld's
Mr. HERSH: Oh, it's been there for years. Rumsfeld has intervened in the
most significant ways. He intervenes in the selection process between who is
going to be a three-star general, who's going to be a four-star. Usually
secretaries of defense stay out of that business. It's the service's business
to pick their generals. He intervenes on all levels. He has completely
uprooted the whole system of the Pentagon in terms of he believes in special
forces. He wants his office to have some direct control in running it. He
wants--he's cutting into the power of the joint chiefs and the service
secretaries on a number of issues. And so he's pretty much--and he doesn't
listen. All these complaints I've been hearing for years. You are hearing
them more and more.
The three generals who spoke out are just but the tip of an ice berg. Many
more inside, for a lot of reasons, don't want to talk. There's a great deal
of acrimony to put it mildly. It's only getting worse, but the secretary of
defense, you know, in my book--I've been watching these guys since 9/11, you
know, writing my little alternative history of this group--and if you think
I--the key players, of course, are Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. It's the
threesome. There is no way they are ever going to fire Rumsfeld. He's so
much more important to them inside than going outside and sniping. They won't
have that. He may quit. If he does, it will be his decision.
At the height of Abu Ghraib--as you know, I did a lot of writing on Abu
Ghraib--there's a lot of speculation he'd be fired then. I remember telling
everybody then--because I know something about how these guys work--no way
he's going to be fired. And if you want to know why, it's because this policy
is a continuous continuity. What you saw in Abu Ghraib and what you see now,
it all comes back to the same small group of people in the White House. The
president and the vice president. Rumsfeld is a part of that process.
GROSS: Any concluding thoughts that you have that you'd like to leave us
Mr. HERSH: Yes. One thought that I have which is this. In all of the
conversations I've had about this in the last three months--more than
that--hundreds. And all of the talking, the one thing that nobody has ever
suggested is that there was any official reckoning or accounting or estimates
of how many civilian casualties would be the result if we did an all-out
bombing or even a partial bombing of Iran, a country with 80 million people,
most of whom are instinctively pro-American and anti-cleric. That seems to
be--that's just a dreadful, dreadful fact.
GROSS: Seymour Hersh, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HERSH: Great, Terry.
GROSS: Seymour Hersh's article about planning for a possible ash--air strike
against Iran is in the current edition of The New Yorker.
I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Bettie Crocker in stiletto heels and a leather corset. We
consider the mysteries and contradictions in the life of '50s pin-up queen
Bettie Page. Her photos were published in men's magazines like "Wink" and
"Bachelor." She also appeared in private bondage films and stills. We talked
with director Mary Harron about her new film, "The Notorious Bettie Page."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Director Mary Harron discusses her new movie "The
Notorious Bettie Page"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Bettie Page was a 1950s pin-up queen. She posed for men's magazines and for
photos and films for private collectors with a taste for leather corsets,
whips, black seamed stockings and stiletto-heeled shoes. She has been called
the official pin-up of the bondage scene. Her pictures were considered in the
1955 Senate investigation into the impact of pornographic material on youth.
She gave up modeling two years later and was born again. Her popularity has
grown over the years.
The mysteries and contradictions of her life are explored in the new movie,
"The Notorious Bettie Page," which stars Gretchen Mol. My guest, Mary Harron,
directed the film. She also made "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho"
and has directed episodes of "Homicide," "Oz," "Six Feet Under" and "Big
In this scene from the film, Page is posing for photos by Paula and Irving
Klaw who run a specialty business. They have asked her to wear black
underwear, black seamed stockings, and stiletto heels so extreme that she
can't walk without assistance. Paula Klaw is played by Lili Taylor.
(Soundbite from "The Notorious Bettie Page")
Ms. LILI TAYLOR: (As Paula Klaw) It's the shoes they want.
Ms. GRETCHEN MOL: (As Bettie Page) Shoes and boots. Boots and shoes. I
can't get enough of them.
Ms. TAYLOR: (As Paula) Why?
Ms. MOL: (As Bettie) Don't ask. It takes all types to make a world.
Ms. TAYLOR: (As Paula) What kind of types?
Ms. MOL: (As Bettie) You see, customers who want this stuff, they are very
respectable. Very high quality people. Doctors, lawyers, diplomats, even a
judge. They are not people like us. The pressures they've got. They aren't
your average joe. So what if they want something that is a little strange.
In fact, it makes them happy. Sure.
Ms. TAYLOR: (As Paula) Sometimes they come into the store and I can see they
want something different. Irving says I can spot them a mile off.
Mr. CHRIS BAUER: (As Irving Klaw) Oh, she can. She's got an instinct.
Ms. TAYLOR: (As Paula) If I think it's shoes they want, I'll pull out a
movie star. Lana Turner, with a nice pair of high heels, and I'll point to
them and say, `Like this maybe?' Ah, the look on his face. Like they are so
relieved, I understand. And then I start pulling out the special stuff.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Mary Harron, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the kind of
photos and short films that made Bettie Page famous?
Ms. MARY HARRON: Well, there are two world Bettie Page photographs. One are
very sunny, traditional pin-ups and, you know, bathing suits or bikinis, and
you know, kind of jokey, light-hearted. And the other things that made her
famous are these fetish photographs that she did for a brother and sister team
called Irving and Paula Klaw. And these are kind of grainy black and white.
It was seeing these photographs that first time that inspired my interest in
her because she'll be standing in what looks like somebody's living
room--suburban living room--you know, next to a lamp, a table and chair. And
then she's wearing like high-heeled leather boots and leather corsets, and
she's always, you know, some kind of maybe a whip, but she is always smiling
radiantly. You know, like she is Bettie Crocker. She has a completely
inappropriate expression for these seemingly sinister photos. So those are
the two worlds of Bettie Page.
GROSS: Yeah. In fact, you know, I confess I just bought a DVD of the real
Bettie Page at a used record store. So I was watching some of these films you
were just describing with--in front of the little lamp and the little table
where she dancing--and it's almost like she's doing a Charleston and a shimmy.
Ms. HARRON: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in all this fetish gear.
Ms. HARRON: Yeah. Yeah, in a way, it's really only fetish gear, or
occasionally she will, you know, spank someone kind of ineffectually. Or they
might do a little bit of wrestling--her and another girl--always girls, never
men in the photos. But her demeanor really is of another world. So that's I
think part of what gives these photos their strange appeal.
On the other hand, I think that her affect when she is posing isn't really
sexy. It isn't about trying to be sexy. It is the joy of being photographed.
It's a kind of very innocent, playful, radiantly happy quality that comes out
of the photographs, as if she is a kid dressing up.
GROSS: Where were her photos published?
Ms. HARRON: Well, when she made them in the mid-early to mid-50s, they were
done for private clients who would--the fetish photographs, I mean--and the
fetish photographs would be taken in the Klaw studio and, you know, the client
would pay for the photographs. He would bring in the very expensive leather
outfits, and they would be for his private collections. Later, some of these
were put together in little special editions. You know, "Bettie Page in
Bondage." And the other photographs she did were kind of for the
pin-ups--there were all these pin-up magazines with names like "Wink," you
know, "Titter," "Flirt." And these were sold on newsstands, and they had a
kind of ambiguous status because men would buy them. But then they would keep
them under the bed or hide them in the garage. They were naughty, but not,
you know, illegal.
GROSS: What was your first reaction seeing her photos and how, if at all, has
that reaction to those photos changed?
Ms. HARRON: I think my first reaction was just like, `Who is this?' `Where
did these photos come from?' You know, because they are kind of erotic. They
are strange.You know, there is obviously a darkness because they are this
gritty black and white and because of the fetish content. At the same time,
they're--they are so cheery. You know, nothing makes sense, which is kind of
Bettie, herself. She doesn't quite add up as a person. The more you find out
about her, every piece of the puzzle just makes it more mysterious.
GROSS: Well, you portray Bettie Page in your movie as someone who wanted to
act but didn't seem to have quite the right talent for theater. But she
really came alive doing these erotic poses in front of the camera. I mean,
she really came alive, she blossomed, she loved it. So do you see her, you
know, in all these kink poses, as being like a victim of male lust? Or
somebody who really found her calling?
Ms. HARRON: I would go on the direction that she really found her calling.
I think she was a victim of male lusts sometimes in her early life, in her
personal life. You know she had bad sexual experiences. You know, she was
abused by her father. She had a very bad rape experience. You know, I think
she was someone who had experienced real sexual violence. And so, I think if
you have had those experiences to be paid a lot of money just to dress up in
costumes with a group of friends does not feel like victimization. I think--I
don't think it felt like that to her.
GROSS: Now in order to make this movie, you had to, in some way, enter the
world of fetishes and understand that world so that you could portray them.
Do you feel like you understand fetishes for bondage and for stiletto laced-up
boots? I mean, one of those Bettie Page specialty items were these incredibly
high stiletto shoes and boots.
Ms. HARRON: You know, it's interesting because there's only a couple of real
fetishes in the film. Because Irving and Paula, you know, I think were almost
as clueless as Bettie. They knew that these were for sexual purposes, but
they, you know--it kind of didn't interest them. They were just wanting to
make money and run their business.
There is a character called John Willie who was a real-life character played
by Jared Harris, who was a really brillant British artist and photographer who
did illustrated stories about young women being, you know, tied--they are very
kind of tongue-in-cheek--about a young woman named Gwendolyn being tied up by
some evil aristocrat. And they also did a magazine called Bizarre. And
Bizarre--you can learn about fetishism from Bizarre. You can't--I don't think
you can really learn anything about the appeal of fetishes from me, the Irving
and Paula Klaw photos because they are kind of clueless. You know, I don't
think they understand the erotic content. But when you see John Willie's
photographs, you are looking at women through a fetishist eye. He--the true
fetishist is so obsessive. It is so much about detail. It is so much about
the height of the high heel, the length of the stocking top, you know, the
number of, you know, laces in the boots. And it is a kind of transference of
sexuality so that the most potent part of the sexuality gets transferred on to
high heels, vinyl, rubber boots, you know. I mean, it could be all kinds of
There are shots of Bettie Page, the real Bettie Page, that are just like her
legs and her feet with no shoes on. I mean, that's what I guess, the guys
wanted to see...
GROSS: The people who were really into those shoes.
Ms. HARRON: Yes. As Lili Taylor says in the film, playing Paula Klaw,
"Shoes and boots. Boots and shoes. That's all they care about." Something we
said constantly on the set. It was our little catch phrase. Yeah. So
it--and things like the high-heel fetish seem pretty harmless today, I have to
say. Or it certainly seems to me if someone wants, you know, to be obsessed
with high heels or stocking tops, that's entirely up to them.
But I think what the Senate were worried about--and the forces of morality
generally--was an idea that fetishes can be created. That if somebody sees a
fetish photograph, it is a kind of infection and that they--you know, a young
person, an impressionable young person--that a fetish can be created in them
simply by viewing this material.
GROSS: One of the things you depict in the movie are these camera clubs where
a group of men who are amateur photographers and into pin-ups would come
together, you know, and gather in a group and photograph Bettie Page or
another model. And I don't know if they had to pay a fee to do this or what,
but then they'd be able to take home their photographs and use them however
they pleased. What were these camera clubs like and how did you find out
Ms. HARRON: They were--the photographers did pay a fee so it was actually
very profitable for the models. I first found out about the camera clubs from
these fan scenes of Bettie Page's because Greg Theakston, the editor of those
magazines, basically interviewed anybody who ever walked across Bettie Page's
path. And he put us in touch with a lot of--you know, as many photographers
as we could talk to who were still alive. And, you know, again, you know,
what is racy in the '50s is so innocuous today. Today people make, you know,
porno movies at home, you know, on home video equipment. But there, to go and
you'd pay a substantial amount of money to go and photograph a girl in
lingerie. And some people would not even have film in the cameras. They
would just pretend to take photographs, so exciting was it to be in the same
room as a very curvy girl in underwear.
GROSS: My guest is Mary Harron. She directed the new film, "The Notorious
Bettie Page." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest in Mary Harron, and she directed
the new film, "The Notorious Bettie Page."
What was the casting process like for you? And one of the things I am
thinking of is that there are so many actresses today who are--leading lady
kind of actresses--who are so thin, and they'd be all wrong for Bettie Page,
because not that Bettie Page was heavy, but she had a figure. She had a
bosom. She had hips. She had a kind of hourglass figure, and if you had
something who looked kind of anorexic with their clothes off--as I think
probably a lot of actresses do today--they'd be all wrong.
Ms. HARRON: Yeah. There were some extremely beautiful girls who came in.
As soon as they sat down, I was like, `You are never going to play Bettie
Page.' It's just all--and it wasn't--it was both the thinness--and actually
some people it was their body language was all wrong. People would come in
and flop and be all relaxed and, you know, the modern manner. But when
Gretchen Mol came in, she had--she had deportment. You know, she stood up
straight and had her legs crossed. She was like--she was wearing white
gloves, you know. At the same time, she was, you know, very, you know,
adorable and sexy. But she had that '50s decorum. So there were two things I
was looking at. Both the right kind of body--and Gretchen is slimmer than
Bettie. Bettie was a--a curvacious woman. But she--I felt like she had the
body language so down that she could make it work.
GROSS: Now the movie shot--there are color sequences, but the movie is
largely shot in black and white. So it looks very much of its era, the 1950s.
Why did you want to shoot it in black and white?
Ms. HARRON: Well, you know, I never knew why really. It was just such a
deeply held conviction, and many people, when we went and pitched the story,
it was like, `Why?' I could--I'm going--I have to. You know, the '50s in New
York are black and white. I mean, that is certainly how I think of that era.
But I realized after we made the film that, of course, the Paula Klaw photos
are in black and white. And the Bunny Yeager photos that she did in Miami are
in color. So, that was one reason why I just thought, you know, black and
white. Miami color. Because that is how I got to know Bettie.
But also I think that there was a good reason that I wasn't able to articulate
at the time, which was that it gives--black and white gives those fetishes an
aesthetic distance, you know, and also the nude scene. There is a scene with
one of the camera clubs early on where she takes all her clothes off. I want
to be very beautiful and kind of not wink-wink, you know. You know, more
like--as she says--as Bettie says, you know, `Adam and Eve in the Garden of
Eden.' And having it in black and white gives--just makes it like another
world, the past. And also, you know, one of the main things I wanted to do
with this movie was to take you back. I wanted it to be a journey into the
past, if it did nothing else. And I think black and white helps to do that.
GROSS: One of the things that makes the movie very convincing looking is that
the faces of the actors and actresses--they look like 1950s faces. And I
couldn't explain to you exactly what I mean by that, but they just do. And
they're shot in a very 1950s kind of way. Could you talk a little bit about
casting for faces that look right for the period?
Ms. HARRON: Yeah, because I care a lot about casting. Not just the main
roles but also the extras. One reason why I was determined to shoot in New
York rather than Vancouver or Toronto, which would be cheaper, was that I just
don't think you can get New York faces there. I am from Toronto, so you
know--it's just a different--it's different. And the other thing I said was
to our extras casting, `No facial work. No plastic surgery.' Because that's
not period. People in the '50s didn't have their faces done. And then it was
really a question of the right faces and then, you know, fantastic makeup.
Our makeup artist, Nicki Ledermann, who does--did such a great job. And then,
you know, it was hair, wardrobe. You know, it was--it's production design.
But actually in terms of just shooting the faces, Mott Hupfel, our DP, also
used, you know, some period filters. We used a range of lenses that you would
only use in '50s movies. There's no long lenses because those came later. We
used the lighting of '50s movies. A lot of light, even in the outdoor
sequences, to give it that kind of slightly hyper real quality of old
Hollywood. And then we--progressively, we also used a thing called ring
light, which is the old Hollywood way of lighting actresses. Because I wanted
her always to be like--in an old Hollywood movie, the star is always almost
like has a light on her--she's always like glowing.
Ms. HARRON: And so we used an old Hollywood trick which is a ring light
around the camera to cast a...(unintelligible)...glow on her. So there's a
lot that went into it.
GROSS: Do you think that your film "The Notorious Bettie Page" has a slightly
different point of view with you shooting it as a woman than the point of view
that a man shooting it would be likely to have? Is that a fair question?
Ms. HARRON: Oh, yeah. I think it is undoubtedly true. In some ways I think
it is like the whole point of it. Because I want--I approached her I think in
a different way. I was not so interested in her being sexy. You know, that
wasn't my--I was interested in what it's like to be that kind of girl. What
is it like to be a beauty queen? What is it like to be the object of that,
you know, that much attention or that gaze or, you know, what's it like when
the--your face, your body changes your life in that way? And then how is
it--just what was it for her? What was her experience? That was really--I
was just like, you know--take her life, her point of view. And I feel like
there have been lots of things about beauty icons, but they are not really
from their point of view. It's not about what life is like for them.
GROSS: You know, as mysterious as it seems, why would somebody be into
bondage imagery, you know, and images of women being tied up?
Ms. HARRON: I think it is fair to say that, say in 1950s Westerns, that kind
of bondage imagery was a stock part of Westerns. Women were always getting
kidnapped and tied up. And--I mean, you could easily argue that '50s
Westerns, which children grew up on and everybody watched, were kind of covert
bondage imagery. Yes.
And I think Irving Klaw definitely made--tried to make that case, in fact, in
his legal battles. And how that whole business of the Klaws came about was
that they noticed that people would come in and ask for, you know, "Tarzan and
the Slave Girl," you know, that photo of her being tied up and with it--and
images of women being bound and tied up were very, very popular. And so they
realized there was a special market. I think I guess they started to
specialize and order more, focus on it. And then it--what's complicated about
it is--you can see why men--you know, it's dominance of submission. You can
see why certain men with kind of S&M tendencies would want to see women bound
up. That would play to that fantasy. But then, there's also like the female
end of it. And I think that Bettie Page's popularity kind of reveals the
complexity of sexual fantasy, you know. That people imagine themselves in
different roles, you know. I mean, even John Willie, you know, the great
perv, you know, he liked to be tied up, too. He would wear women's stockings,
you know. You think of him as `Oh, if he likes to photograph women tied up,
that means he's one kind of sexual animal.' But, no, he would wear silk
stockings, high heels, he liked to be tied up himself. People are
GROSS: What are things that you learned about fetishes? I mean, different
tastes in fetishes that you found either baffling or fascinating or like, `Who
knew? Who knew that there was a cult around this item?'
Ms. HARRON: Well, actually years ago, it was when I first started to hear
about this, when I was a young journalist in London and a friend of mine gave
me copies of a British fetish magazine called AtomAge, and--which was the
magazine for vinyl and leather fetishes, and it was hilarious. It was even
funnier because it was written from a real English hobbyist's standpoint. It
was all about the care and preservation of your leather and vinyl. And it was
like they were talking about gardening. It was so British and sort of banal
and suburban. Because, of course, all this stuff was very--is rampant in
suburban homes as opposed to like, you know, supposedly the evil metropolis.
I'm sure you'd probably find that today in America. But, anyway, they had the
strangest things which would be like people have fetishes for rubber boots,
Wellington boots. And people having fetishes for gas masks, which in--this
was many years ago that I looked into this magazine--but this was kind of a
postwar thing. There were all these people who had somehow childhood
experiences during the Blitz in Britain of putting on gas masks and somehow it
became a fetish. It's--that was a strangest thing I ever encountered. It's
like, `All right. I would have never thought that.'
Ms. HARRON: It's like, `OK.' Anything, you know, anything can somehow become
as they say in the Senate hearings that we, you know, recreate, `Anything can
become fetish, even a violin.' But actually with the Klaws, with the world of
Bettie Page, I wasn't really looking that much into fetishes because I wasn't
really dealing with the fetishes. I was dealing with the people who create
the product. And it is kind of like any kind of filming or any kind of
photography. It's like all very--it's a job, you know. And those people--the
people who create those sexy images aren't doing it in a sort of atmosphere of
sexiness, eroticism. You know, they're just like--`OK,' you know, `Well, we
need these kinds of photographs, 12 copies of this and eight-inch high heels
and move that light and we have to be finished by 5:30.'
GROSS: My guest is Mary Harron. She directed the new film, "The Notorious
Bettie Page." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Mary Harron. She directed the new film, "The Notorious
Bettie Page," about the 1950s pin-up queen who became famous for posing in
leather corsets, whips and stiletto heels.
Bettie Page is still alive. Do you know what she is doing now?
Ms. HARRON: Well, she's 83 and I think quite frail. She spends a lot of
time signing the many photographs that people, you know--photographs and
memorabilia--which she is now able to get some, you know, money out of. She
did see the film. It was shown to her at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh
Hefner, who is a friend of hers.
GROSS: What did she say about it?
Ms. HARRON: Well, I--you know, I think she liked Gretchen. I think she
enjoyed it. I think she found it, you know, it came back--you know, when I
thought of it, I thought, `Oh, seeing a film of her own life, it would be so
weird and annoying, really.' Because it is never going to be how you remember
it. There was a point where she was like, `I wasn't wearing a purple dress.
I didn't say that,' you know. And I don't blame her. You know, `You know,
you weren't. It's just a--we thought that up.' So I think she is still
processing it. I think she enjoyed it except for the Senate hearings which I
think is still a painful subject.
GROSS: Even though she didn't have to testify at them?
Ms. HARRON: Well, I think it was more what people said about her that she
GROSS: What did they say about her at the Senate hearings?
Ms. HARRON: Well, she was used as an example of--you know, of--this is the
whole thing toward the end of the film--someone--you know it's a very tragic
story that is from the actual transcripts of those hearings--where a young boy
was found dead, strangled by--in rope. He tied himself up in ropes. And I
believe, clearly the police then felt that it was auto-erotic asphyxiation
because they refused to pursue it as a criminal case. But the boy--the boy's
father was so--you know, racked with grief, that he thought, `No, it can't
be.' Then, `It must have been somebody did this to my son.' And he
found--someone showed him some photographs of Bettie Page in which she was
tied up in a kind of similar pose, and I--some classic bondage photos. And
these became part of the Senate hearings, and they said this photograph must
have caused this boy's death. So it was very, I think, upsetting to her.
GROSS: You mention that Bettie Page is friends with Hugh Hefner and she saw
your film at the Playboy Mansion. Is she still very religious?
Ms. HARRON: Bettie is still religious. Of course, she always was. That was
one of the things that first intrigued me about her was that, knowing that she
was a girl from Nashville and who had been brought up in that kind of Southern
religious background. I always thought that she would never have not been
religious. You know, she may have been more or less involved with God and
more or less involved with the church. But it wasn't like she didn't ever
believe in God, you know. But what's interesting about Bettie was that she
combined her religiousness with extraordinary kind of free thinking really.
Because even today, she looks back at the critics, `I'm most ashamed of what I
did.' You know, so people take religion, you know--people personalize their
religion, I think, more than we'd like to acknowledge. And people take what
means something to them. And I think she was not interested in puritan
morality. She wasn't interested in telling other people what to do. You
know, I think at heart she was a very tolerant person. She was an open-minded
person. And when she went to God, it was more as a refuge and also a--I
think, being born again--you know, the personal knowledge of Jesus. And after
she was born again and attended Bible school, as far as I know, she didn't go
around preaching, you know, `I have left my sinful life behind.' Someone who
was in her Bible class said that he didn't even know much about her previous
career. So I think she's--you know, so she seems to combine it with the
Playboy Mansion and churchgoing, you know, without any sense of contradiction.
GROSS: Well, Mary Harron, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. HARRON: Thank you.
GROSS: Mary Harron directed the new film, "The Notorious Bettie Page."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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