Bettie Page Reveals All (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Produced by Mari Mori, Thorpe Mori, Mark Roesler, Evan Schollsberg, Clifford Schultz, and Gilberto Vera; directed by Mark Mori; cinematography by Grant Barbeito, Angelo Baroeta, Doug Miller, and Jay Miracle; editing by Julie Chabot, Douglas Miller, and Jay Miracle; music by Sean Fernald, Gary Guttman, and Greg Sill; starring Bettie Page, Dita von Teese, Hugh Hefner, Bunny Yeager, Rebecca Romijn, Paula Klaw, Perez Hilton, Dave Stevens, and Mamie Van Doren, Color and B&W, 101 min. Distributed by Music Box Films, http://www.musicboxfilms.com.
For the uninitiated, Bettie Page was probably the most popular nude and seminude pinup model of the Fifties, appearing on countless calendars, in girlie magazines (with names like Wink and Titter), hoochie-coochie flicks, and in somewhat grubby, all-girl bondage films of the era. She vanished in the Sixties as sex magazines took a harder turn, themselves overwhelmed by hard-core movies, then triple-X home video. In the last thirty years, tons of bric-a-brac bearing Page’s girl-next-door smile and spectacular physique served a huge cult that seemed to view her as a sign of lost innocence, and an appealing image of sunny female sexuality in a burned-out culture.
The double-entendre title of Mark Mori’s documentary is a case of truth in advertising. We, indeed, see more than we expected of Bettie, both in her standard fare and in long-stashed snapshots from the old days. Far more important, Page more or less tells her own story. Using audio interviews collected by Mori (Page never permitted photos as age set in), Page essentially provides a running commentary about her mostly hardscrabble life—she completed her contribution shortly before her death in 2008. This presents a jarring issue: the elderly voice on the soundtrack, thickened by a Tennessee accent, in no way jibes with the cheerfully nude young woman, with bangs and sleek black fall, on the screen. But with this first and only authorized film biography, Mori might have produced the last word on the fabled sex goddess. He shows us Bettie as a child, as a high-school egghead who nearly earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and as a hopeful ingénue in late Forties New York. It’s good to see a filmmaker who offers us a whole human being, considering how her one-dimensional public image has oversaturated pop culture in recent times. Unfortunately, Bettie Page never made a dime out of all the retro, postmodern hullabaloo, not even knowing, from her seclusion (she could give J. D. Salinger a run for his money), that she was a huge star long after she left the pinup business. In her final years, friends put her in touch with lawyers to ensure that she could make a decent living from the new exploitation of her image. She is taken aback, and sometimes appalled, by current representations of her past, including Mary Harron’s milquetoast, dismissable film The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), which at an advance screening has Page shouting, “Lies, lies, lies!”
Bettie Page Reveals All is not by any means merely a skin flick, although it has plenty of naked Bettie pictures for those who still need them. Page’s story is often miserable, starting with a Southern girlhood filled with poverty and abuse (she says that her father would “stick it in chickens, sheep, cows and anything…he was a sexfiend”). She talks about getting ten cents for the movies (her main escape and chief influence) by letting her father “play with [her] on the ‘outside’,” but not permitting him to penetrate her, as he did her two sisters. This was a family beset by horrors. The fine distinctions Page makes on matters of abuse would characterize her life as she tells it. She fled to various cities, survived bad marriages, and held the usual jobs assigned to women (secretarial spots) before, somewhat predictably, getting into the skin trade. As her popularity faded in the Sixties, bouts of depression put Page in psychiatric hospitals where she was given shock treatments and other less-than-gentle therapies prescribed to women “hysterics” then and now. She found a refuge, predictably given her origins, in born-again Christianity.
It is easy to read Bettie Page as a classic case of an abused girl who repeated a script, living out her abuse over and over as a woman, especially by relating to the world sexually. But this seems far too easy an analysis. The happiness that she projects seems genuine, and her narration offers what seems to be an authentic testimonial about a healthy and active sex life, and an ordinary pursuit of friendship and love—unfortunately, the dice didn’t often roll her way until her later years.
Before the sadness of her decline, Page was dragged before Congress and Senator Estes Kefauver, who was among Washington opportunists using the Cold War to police public morals, making sure the commies didn’t infect newsstand racks with alien filth—the crusade, typically, had a strong anti-Semitic cast. Page and a benign nebbish with the sinister name of Irving Klaw (who didn’t have the sense not to send his rather silly bondage films through the mail) had to answer questions, although Page ended up not having to testify. Klaw was blamed for the death of a young man who tried out a bondage routine. He was basically ruined; Bettie went back to work briefly, eventually producing her most stunning images with Bunny Yeager, one of the few female photographers of the female body. Cavorting naked on Florida beaches and kitschy jungle sets, the tanned Bettie, now well over thirty, looks her healthiest and most striking. The Page-Yeager collaboration is one of the significant moments of Fifties erotica, and still occasionally a subject of feminist critical attention and a lesbian following. As appealing as she was, she never crossed over to Hollywood, but, then as now, the most talented sex stars rarely made a go of it in the “legit” image business, and surviving sound footage of Page suggests that acting wasn’t in her, for all her knowing, movie-influenced poses.
Although omnipresent in the skin trade, Page drew a line, never appearing in hard-core films; she once had a lapse of judgment, getting drunk on blackberry brandy, allowing members of a “camera club” (guys who could click cameras for a fee but not touch) to photograph her spread-eagled (her “split-beaver” photos are hotly pursued by Page cognoscenti).
Page’s charm resides in innocence juxtaposed with sex, Bettie’s smiling face knew how to project just the right mood for the right photo. But then isn’t she perfectly typical of her times? How many advertisements depicted a sexy young woman smiling about the joys of dish washing? The Fifties representation of women showed the female more than happy to please, her own interests naturally coinciding with those of the (male) viewer. Images aside, the Bettie Page story might well be considered that of the female in postwar America. She says that her mother wanted no girls, only boys (the female being less utilitarian to the hardscrabble poor). She tried to make a go of it in the labor force as the guys came home from World War II (we might keep in mind that her story indeed belongs to the United States of over two generations ago), but ended up selling her body. She tried to enjoy the benefits of the postwar economic boom, and approached life with openness and spontaneity that on some dreadful occasions got her into real trouble. Once a young man invited her to go dancing at the Roseland ballroom. Being a dance aficionado, she accepted without a thought—she ended up being raped by six men.
There are some endearing yet sad moments in the film, such as an art exhibit/happening that is also a Bettie lookalike convention. Organizers arrange a conference phone call with Page in the film’s last reel. Bettie is clearly delighted and thankful, but we wonder about the callers; in the current moment, they may be capable of producing an “improved” Bettie (although no one in sight has her charm or looks) in the sense of having real control over their sexuality and its public representation, its power to shock and even subvert. But then there’s the next question: What, given the state of things in current America, with plenty of bread and X-rated circuses, is the point of the exercise?
Bettie Page’s story might be seen as merely symptomatic and archetypal, but that would diminish her as a human being and artist. It is unreasonable to say that there was nothing unoriginal about Bettie Page, just as it is to argue, as her fans insist, that she was the godmother of the sexual revolution. Her presence in culture is unique, and her face and body were challenges, even if she rarely had total control over them (who does in capitalist civilization?), to the repression always raising its head in America, and an especially pernicious force in her moment.
Christopher Sharrett is professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University and writes frequently for Film International.
To see a trailer for Bettie Page Reveals All, click http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1776086/
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1