The big problem with pinup queen Bettie Page — maybe the only problem — is that her image inspires so many easy bromides about how she made sex seem fun and playful, and how she’s a great role model for modern women who want to feel comfortable with their sexuality. It’s not that any of those observations are wrong. It’s just that they reduce Page to a Post-it-sized affirmation for our own causes.
In 2013, in the Western world, at least, it’s not such a big deal to own your sexuality. In the 1950s, when Page’s career was flowering — and before she mysteriously walked away from that career in 1957 — owning your sexuality could get you arrested. Page stands for joy and fun and freedom, absolutely, but for her that was perilous. It wasn’t her willingness to appear nude, or semi-nude, that made her revolutionary. What made her dangerous was the one thing she almost always wore: a smile.
Mark Mori’s documentary Bettie Page Reveals All understands that, celebrating Page’s verve and beauty while placing it squarely in its social and historical context. Much of the movie consists of footage and stills from Page’s life and career, and face it: Looking at Page for some 90 minutes is a pleasure unto itself. But her actual voice gives the movie its richness. Mori has constructed the movie around a series of audio-only interviews he conducted with Page in the 1990s. There are no photos of the older Page — she said that she wanted people to remember her as she was in the pictures. But the sound of her reveals more than she may have realized. Page never smoked or drank, but the drawling rasp of her older voice bears the marks of a not-so-easy life.
Page, as she tells it, was born into an impoverished Tennessee family of six. Her mother, she says, didn’t want her; her father sexually abused her and several of her siblings. But what you don’t hear in Page’s voice is self-pity. She describes a brief, early, unhappy marriage as a roadblock she had to blast through before she could really start having fun. And she did have fun, making her way to New York, where she found work as a secretary, though she soon discovered she could make more money modeling for amateur photography enthusiasts. Eventually, she appeared in photos and films made by Irving and Paula Klaw, the brother-sister duo behind New York’s mail-order photo business Movie Star News, and in magazines like Wink, Titter, Flirt and Beauty Parade, all published by nudie-cutie and fetish impresario Robert Harrison.
Page assures us she was having fun in those photographs, not that we need to be told. Through her pinups, Page became famous for her saucy, athletic curves, her wardrobe of flirty bikinis (most of which she designed and sewed herself), and her blunt shortie bangs. In one of the movie’s most delightful interludes, she tells the story of that ‘do, explaining that one of those amateur photography enthusiasts suggested they might look good on her. “So I went home and cut me some, and I’ve been wearing them ever since!” she says with a cackle. Youth may leave us, but bangs endure.
Mori — director of the 1991 documentary Building Bombs — assembles the information here with clarity and sensitivity, particularly in dealing with the unhappier episodes of the 10 years Page spent, later in her life, in a California mental institution. At that time, she couldn’t have known how many people remembered her pictures and loved her for them, among them the late illustrator Dave Stevens, who garnered her a new, younger audience with his Rocketeer comics. Stevens subsequently befriended Page and introduced her to Hugh Hefner, who helped her get financial restitution for the use of her image.
Stevens died in 2008, the same year Page did. Hefner, on the other hand, is a survivor in silk pajamas, and his observations here are among the movie’s smartest. He points out that the simple idea of sex as a normal part of life — something we take for granted now — was revolutionary in the ’50s. During the course of posing for those camera-club enthusiasts, Page was once arrested for “indecent exposure,” and the mere wording of the charge enraged her. We hear her explain matter-of-factly, years after she had become a devout Christian, that she felt very comfortable naked and loved having sex.
Ultimately, that may be one of the most touching angles of Bettie Page Reveals All. Mori tracks down some of Page’s former boyfriends, as well as one deeply sympathetic ex-husband, who all speak of her in the tenderest terms. They all say, without braggadocio, how much she loved sex, and how much they loved having sex with her. How often do we get to hear old people speak with that kind of honesty? Mostly, it’s not the sort of thing we youngsters want to hear. But isn’t that the key to Bettie Page’s enduring appeal? In those pictures, she’ll always be young and beautiful, playful and fun — more than just a dream girl, she’s a reminder of our own dreams.