Monday, November 18, 2013


Spellbinding new documentary tells tragic story of iconic model...

Graphic details told in her own voice...

Many years after her reign as the most popular pin up model of the 1950s, Bettie Page grabbed a kitchen knife and marched her husband and her three step-children into the living room of their home where a large portrait of Jesus was hanging.  With a glazed look in her eye, she told the family that they'd better believe in God, or else she was going to "cut their guts out." Her husband managed to slip away and call the police; Bettie went away peacefully.

A short time later, she attacked her landlady with a knife. They grappled; blood was drawn. This time Bettie was taken away in a squad car.

It's a great credit to director Mark Mori that these sinister events are not the centerpiece of his  excellent documentary Bettie Page Reveals All. Instead, the darker aspects of Page's life are told in an almost melancholy way, as if the great unhappiness in her past would inevitably lead to violence.   The irony of Page's story is that while her personal life crumbled, her old photos began making a comeback. Comic book artist Dave Stevens began using her likeness in his magazine, The Rocketeer, and suddenly, decades after she'd been Playboy's Miss January of 1955, she was hot again. Meanwhile, unknown to her new fans, she was undergoing shock treatments and taking large doses of Thorazine to stop the voices in her head.

When Page was released after eight years at Patton State Hospital, she lived quietly on the outskirts of LA. She had a vague idea that a  new cult of fans were interested in  her, but having grown older and heavier, she preferred to remain in the shadows. The details of her life remained hazy, although there were a couple of books published, a 1998 E! True Hollywood Story episode, and Mary Harron's 2005 unsatisfying feature The Notorious Bettie Page. After viewing Bettie Page Reveals All  tonight as part of the Cape Ann Film Festival, I can't imagine a more definitive statement on Bettie Page.
Mori's coup is that Page herself agreed to take part in the project, not onscreen, but as the narrator. While an endless loop of her best cheesecake poses flood the screen, Page's tired old voice tells a painful story of childhood molestation, rape, beatings, bad marriages, and her eventual nervous breakdown. That she giggles through much of it takes some of the edge off. (Who would imagine that Page's laugh would be a high pitched, hillbilly cackle?) Her life was difficult, but she had fun when she could, and she loved being sexy; she tells her story in such a matter of fact manner that you can't help but like her, even if she does sound like an old Southern spinster.

Page, who died in 2008, was a beautiful woman with jet black hair and a gorgeous figure. Her eyes suggested mischief, and danger; in some photos she looks to be the embodiment of female carnality, as if she might eat a man whole and spit the hair out. In others, she's playful and joyous, not far removed from the little Tennessee girl who used to pose in her front yard like the movie stars she saw in magazines. Mori does a smart thing early in the film, immediately having Page  talk about her father molesting her and her sisters. I heard some people in the audience gasp at her frankness, but Mori was wise to quickly establish that his movie isn't a fun nostalgia piece, and that the skeletons in Bettie's closet are going to rattle.

 There are plenty of talking heads in the movie, ranging from Hugh Hefner to Mamie Van Doren, to the photographers who used to shoot pictures of Bettie as part of an underground camera club. For all of their talk, we don't learn much, just that Bettie was easy to work with, and friendly to the photographers. Some ex-husbands and boyfriends are interviewed, too, but all we learn from them is that she was a fun, sexy woman who got a little weird when it came to religion.

Page's modern fandom is well represented, but sometimes the adoration of Page gets a bit gross, particularly when middle aged drag queens get in on the act. Mori brings us into one event where nearly everyone is in some sort of Bettie Page costume, paying tribute to their idol. She gave them plenty of styles to borrow from, everything from her refreshing country girl look, to her high-booted dominatrix look. As far as I know, though, none  come dressed as Bettie the knife wielding religious nut. Still, the admirers prove only that a lot of women wish they looked like her. None of them do.

Fortunately, Page's narrative is strong enough to give us the clear picture that no one else has been able to capture. In her voice I heard occasional sadness, humor, and anger. She regretted a series of nudes she posed for (while drunk on blackberry brandy), but she never minded her bondage photo sessions, shot discreetly in the attic of Irving Klaw's Movie Star News store in New York. Some of the more controversial photos landed Klaw in court, and Page was called to testify for Senator Estes Kefauver's war on pornography.  "No one was getting hurt," she says, sounding a bit naive, "so I couldn't see what was wrong with it."

Her infamous bondage photos seem playful in retrospect, but there is still a jolt upon seeing them. There's one where she's suspended in the air with a ball-gag in her mouth that is genuinely unsettling, as are her horrified expressions in photos where she's being "punished." Irving Klaw's sister  Paula describes how Page "acted" in these shots, giving her poses a sense of realism beyond the usual stag shots of the day. This is why Page's photos sold so well to customers and earned her the nickname "The Dark Angel." Still, it's jarring to see the terror in her eyes, especially in light of what we've learned about her childhood. We also learn of a case where a young man died, allegedly trying to imitate something he'd seen in one of her bondage photos, proof that pervs in the 1950s were just as dumb as they are now.

Page laughs at the idea of  being "the queen of bondage," and seems more impressed that the clientele for her S&M photos included doctors and lawyers. One of the scenes was so ridiculous that she still laughs about it decades later: a customer wanted her to dress as a horse. "How," she says, "would he even know it's me in the costume?"

Some people in the movie try to paint Page as an influence on women's liberation and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. That's a bit of a stretch, although one of her outfits - a pair of rotary phone dials placed over her nipples - reminded me of something  Lady Gaga might wear. But as Page prattled on about how much she loved sex, I could hear people in the audience, particularly women, groaning as if to say enough is enough.  Either they were tired of hearing this 83-year-old woman talk about her lovers, or they objected to her taste in men. Aside from a brief affair with a famous watch designer, her romantic partners were surprisingly lowbrow. "The one part of my life where I was stupid was in my relationships with men," she says. Agreed.

As difficult as it is to reconcile the gorgeous woman on the screen with the little old hillbilly voice doing the narration, it works to crush our notions about image versus reality.There has always been an otherworldly quality about "Bettie Page" that made it difficult to imagine her  working as a secretary (which she did for a while) or handing out leaflets for Billy Graham's crusade (which she also did) or getting married to some palooka (see above). It's always tempting to think of her as a cartoon character, like Sheena the Jungle Girl or Wonder Woman.  Now, when I see those  old pictures of Bettie Page, I'll  know that this girl  had wanted to be valedictorian of her high school class, and that 65 years later she still lamented coming in second place. 

I'll also remember how sad she sounded when she thought back to when she decided to retire from modeling. She'd been happiest in front of a camera, "playing to it like it was my boyfriend." She refused to be photographed in her old age, preferring to be remembered as she was in her photos. Her wish has been granted. For most of us, she remains an image, rather than a person.

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