[For the next week and half, we will be covering DOC NYC 2012, New York City's premier documentary film festival. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the DOC NYC 2012 slate. You can read all of our DOC NYC coverage here.]
My first encounter with Bettie Page was the idea of Bettie Page in the film The Rocketeer. Page was one of the obsessions of Dave Stevens, the man who created The Rocketeer and wrote/illustrated the comic book the film was based on. He'd become so enamored by Page after seeing her in a vintage magazine that he drew her as his hero's girlfriend. Jennifer Connelly did her best to embody the idea of the Queen of the Pin-Ups in the film. As beautiful as Connelly is, it's difficult to embody an idea, especially the idea of Bettie Page (and especially without bangs).
Bettie Page is basically the Platonic form of hummuna-hummuna and va-va-voom: girl next door looks, perfect skin, sex-positive smile, sultry hairdo, a knack for kinky stuff, a magic ratio of 36-24-37.
In Bettie Page Reveals All, we get the life story of the classic beauty as told in her own twangy voice. It's a humanizing portrait and yet director Mark Mori makes sure that the idea of Bettie Page remains intact.
Bettie Page Reveals All
Bettie Page exists only as an idea for most people. Her image is all over the place. You've probably seen her on postcards or posters or lunchboxes and statuettes. Lots of women have channeled Bettie Page in their work, whether they're Dita Von Teese, Beyonce, or one of the Suicide Girls. Burleseque fans and performers know her for sure, and any vintage buff worth his or her salt knows her as well. She's there in comics and fine art and rockabilly lyrics. But beyond the idea of this voluptuous brunette bombshell, her biography is mostly unknown except to the people in the know. When she left the pin-up business at age 34 (roughly 1957), she disappeared without a trace.
I knew a little bit of what happened to her after she left the industry -- she found religion and kept out of the spotlight -- but little else. Her life story's more complicated than that. Page's past is especially troubling. She and her sisters were molested by her father, her mother didn't love her, and she recounts a horrific sexual assault when she moved from Tennessee to New York. To hear Page and her loved ones recount these moments is remarkably compelling.
Page passed away in 2008, and early on in the film we see some of her funeral service. Her coffin is borne with solemnity while a bagpiper accompanies the procession. A pastor/friend delivers a eulogy. Hugh Hefner is in attendance with his girlfriends. One of Bettie's more demure bikini photos is positioned between the lectern where the pastor speaks and Bettie's own closed casket. It's a room full of oppositions and weird juxtapositions, but they all come together in the sort of service that Page probably would have liked. If anything, and Hefner brings this up, Bettie Page's rise is about the fight against the forces of repression. That all these things are in the same room means Bettie Page won.
That idea of repression is part of what makes Bettie Page Reveals All so fascinating. Okay, that and lots of great pictures of Page in various states of undress, including some never-before-published nudes taken outdoors. During the 1950's when Page became a hit and paved her way toward sexy immortality, obscenity cases were the norm. Sexual repression, political repression, and morally conservative values ran rampant. Parcels in the mail could be opened in order to crack down on pornography and other obscene material. Throughout the 50's and 60's, the offensive stuff included Bettie Page photos, stag films, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr., and Naked Lunch William S. Burroughs; decades before, James Joyce's Ulysses was in the crosshairs.
During the film, Page says she's never been ashamed about her photos, nude or bondage or otherwise (well, save for a few). Nudity is natural; she says it's like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and then she laughs. The laugh makes you know she means it. It's that laugh that was disarming, or so says a few of Page's photographers. Even the most nervous felt at ease in her presence, and she was willing to help them take great photos. In the pictures of Bettie Page, there's something vibrant in her eyes. She's not just an artist's dummy, she's alive. In beach photos, especially for photographer Bunny Yeager, she's exuding fun; in bondage photos, she's acting and giving each photo additional expression; in other pics, there's an implicit laughter like she's having a good time, and she isn't just faking it, and she knows just what she's doing.
I really admired how Mori kept the older Bettie Page off screen during her narration. A little touch like this helped add to the mystique of the film and to Page herself. We do get a handful of images of an older Bettie Page as the film progresses, with one particularly sad mugshot after she left modeling. You can find an image of an elderly Bettie Page online, and she's still got it, but Mori doesn't include it in the film. Now that Page has passed, she lives on as a shared cross-cultural memory of sexuality in the 1950's that taps into a more fundamental yearning for pleasure and sexual liberation.
In some ways there's another kind of opposition present in Bettie Page Reveals All: the real person and the idea of the person. This might be inescapable when it comes to celebrity. Yet Bettie Page Reveals All allows both to exist in the same space because they are inextricable. The real Bettie Page was a private person once she left the public eye. The fact that she was so private when she left added to the mystique of Bettie Page -- the imagery we have, the influence that still circulates, the mystery of the bangs, the come hither smile, and the hourglass figure like an erotic lemniscate. Yet to know a little more about who Bettie Page was, to hear that Southern voice, to smile at her laugh that she uses for punctuation -- it adds to the idea rather than degrading it.
What becomes clear in the film is that Bettie Page, both as an idea and as a person, was a kind of sexual revolutionary. Just think of Rosie the Riveter after dark. At the end of a long day doing a man's work (and like Ginger Rogers, doing the work backwards and in heels), Rosie would take off the bandanna, let down her bangs, allow her long flow of dark hair to topple down, and unwind freely and without shame. Off with the drab work clothes, and off they'd stay for a little while so she could just be herself. Page designed her own wardrobe for photo shoots, from the bikinis to the lingerie, because she was proud of her body. There, in the face of what she'd lived through, is an affirmation: a sensual, healthy yes to life.
Bettie talks frankly about her many lovers, and how she taught a lot of them a thing or two. She was a sex-positive feminist before the classification even existed, decades before third-wave feminism, years before the second-wave (in some ways a sexually repressive strain of feminism) even started. Her image has been co-opted a lot, sort of like Che Guevara but better looking and cooler; and, because she doesn't seem so passé, maybe she's more punk rock. Bettie Page may have been ahead of her time because the idea of Bettie Page was always timeless.
[Bettie Page Reveals All will screen at The IFC Center on Friday, November 9th. Director Mark Mori is expected to attend the screening.]