For someone whose artistic output consists of pin-up photography, 16mm reels of stripteases, and little else, the impact of Bettie Page eclipses that of another 20th century female icon, Marilyn Monroe. Ask yourself this: when’s the last time you saw a Monroe look-alike walking down the street? But for a Bettie Page clone? One served me coffee yesterday, albeit with an arm full of tattoos.
In “Bettie Page Reveals All,” a muddled, but fun documentary, one can see how this model attracted legions of fans across several generations. Her personality jumps out of every photo taken of her, from swimsuits and nudes to her staged bondage photos, either as dominatrix or submissive. She’s having fun, a rare blend of naughty and nice.
During her career as a model in the 1950s, she was very popular. Working for Irving Klaw (now that’s a great name), she was his biggest selling model. But then she quit and successfully dropped out of the public eye.
A generation of artists who had probably seen Bettie in their father’s dirty magazine drawer when they were kids now used Bettie as inspiration for their paintings. Olivia de Berardinis took Bettie as her muse, as did comic book artist Dave Stevens, who made Bettie Page a character in his “Rocketeer” graphic novel, later a movie. But nobody knew Ms. Page’s fate. Was she dead? Living in seclusion?
Fortunately, though she died in 2008, one fan managed to find her on the outskirts of an Inland Empire town, sat down with this very private woman, and recorded a career-and-beyond-spanning interview that makes up the bulk of this film. She is only heard, not seen, as Ms. Page long refused to have contemporary photos taken of her.
In her 80s and with a husky voice, she recounts with a matter-of-fact and sometimes rueful tone her early life and her entry into modeling. She was the second of six children born to a poor Nashville family. Her mother didn’t want her. He father sexually abused her. She made her way to the big city to look into a modeling career but was told she was “too hippy.” But the various camera clubs in New York had no problem with that, just as Ms. Page had no problem posing. She designed her own lingerie and bathing suits. And being nude was nothing to her. It’s Ms. Page’s relaxed attitude toward nudity and sexuality that marks her as modern to us. Even later in life when she found Jesus, she never renounced her photos. (If the reader hasn’t guessed by now, the documentary is full of Bettie in her birthday suit.)
The later years of Bettie Page are sad, as she fell victim to the schizophrenia passed down to her on her mother’s side. When her fans found her in the early ’90s, she was living in a home and penniless. But there’s a happy ending to all of this. Mr. Stevens and Hugh Hefner, who published her as one of his early centerfolds, made sure she got representation and money for the flood of Bettie Page merchandise already out there. She passed away well off, and her estate is still doing well, witnessed by the Bettie Page store on State Street.
The film isn’t perfect. Once it diverts from Ms. Page’s narration, it feels a bit like a typical “E! Hollywood Story” show, and its habit of using Ms. Page fan art to illustrate some real-life harrowing moments in her life feels clueless, if not exploitive.
But apart from that, the film educates about how our sexual mores have changed in America, and how much they haven’t. When a teacher can lose her job because many years before she posed nude, well, Miss Page would understand.
‘Bettie Page Reveals All’
* * * *
Starring: Bettie Page
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: Rated R for sexual content and graphic nudity throughout
Playing at: Fiesta 5