Voiceover recollections from the late, reclusive subject of the title provide the hook for “Bettie Page Reveals All.” That audio input offers few revelations, but is still as close as fans will ever get to the woman behind the fabled 1950s pinup star whose image acquired iconic status: Her enduring appeal is amply documented in myriad vintage photos and clips deployed, while erstwhile collaborators and latter-day admirers add their two cents. Just workmanlike in assembly, Mark Mori’s docu nonetheless should satisfy aficionados of this forever-young sex symbol in theatrical release starting Nov. 22 and subsequent home-format release.
A natural showoff despite her unhappy childhood circumstances, Nashville native Page landed in New York in 1949, after a 20th Century Fox screen test failed to pan out. Stage acting gigs proved similarly elusive, and she was deemed “too hippy” (as in wide-hipped, being voluptuous rather than skinny despite a tiny waist) to be a high-fashion model. But chance led her to different kinds of modeling, for amateur camera clubs (which circumvented nudity and pornography laws by claiming to shoot “art photos” for private use only); mail-order entrepreneurs Irving and Paula Klaw (purveyors of stills and mostly short “specialty films”); pinup specialist Bunny Yeager (who got her the January 1955 Playmate of the Month slot in Playboy magazine) and others.
Sometimes wearing clothes she designed herself (when wearing anything at all), Page communicated a real love of posing, bringing a theatrical flair and sense of fun even to the Klaws’ more sordid bondage-themed photos. (These won unfriendly interest from the FBI and the U.S. Senate, as they investigated possible links between pornography and juvenile delinquency.) But she dropped out of the biz after 1957, cutting all professional ties. There followed long decades in which no one seemed to know what had happened to her, or even if she was still alive. This, despite the gradual growth of a worshipful cult audience — not least among them women, who found what Hugh Hefner terms her “combination of naughty and nice” empowering rather than exploitative.
It’s these lost years that are most intriguing to hear about in Page’s plainspoken narration, culled from an interview recorded not long before her 2008 demise at the age of 85. She added to her considerable number of failed marriages, was born again, enrolled several times in Bible school, was turned down for missionary work, and had mental problems that finally led to a decade in a state psychiatric facility. Penniless upon her release in 1992, she was baffled to learn her that her old career lived on in everything from hairstyles to comicbooks to umpteen unauthorized cash-in products. (Just last year, Forbes pronounced her one of the top 10 deceased celebrity earners.) Hefner helped her gain some control over and financial benefit from such endeavors, though she refused to be filmed or photographed again, preferring to be remembered as she looked in her heyday.
Though not much of a raconteur, the hoarse-voiced elderly Page is surprisingly frank about sexual matters in her own life, while disarmingly naive about her racier public imagery (“For some reason men like to see women spankin’ each other — why, I don’t know”). We hear from artists and models she’s influenced, though the strongest proof of her charisma remains the original photos and films (including Irving Klaw’s 1955 color burlesque feature “Teaserama”), wherein her wholesome, raven-haired beauty and playful vivaciousness still delight.
Veteran docu producer Mori’s evidently crowd-funded film could be more stylishly packaged, as it has a somewhat routine midlevel-cable-production feel. But the content is engaging, and the use of old movie clips to illustrate biographical details (excerpting exploitation cheapie “Married Too Young” when Page discusses a disastrous first marriage) is amusing.