How is it possible that an American figure model who ended her career more than 50 years ago continues to be so influential upon today's popular culture?
Mark Mori's Bettie Page Reveals All makes the case that the subject of his documentary was a woman ahead of her time. Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1923, Bettie Page grew up in disadvantageous circumstances; she says her father molested her and her mother didn't want her. Like many young girls of the time, she dreamed of being a glamour girl, and even had a screen test in Hollywood, though that didn't lead anywhere. Instead, she survived an early, unsuccessful marriage, provided for herself with office jobs, and eventually moved to New York City.
In her late 20s, she accepted a suggestion by a stranger on a beach that she should consider modeling, and lightning finally struck for her. Comfortable in her own skin, she had no problem stripping down for "camera clubs," small groups of men who would spend weekends photographing models. She came to the attention of a photo agency run by Irving and Paula Klaw, an agency that kept hiring and promoting her, and in the conservative 1950s, she found her niche. For the Klaws, she posed in lingerie, often in bondage outfits and scenarios, and frolicked in short films. For others, she posed nude. She became an in-demand model. Then, she stopped her career, and disappeared from public view.
Bettie Page Reveals All spends a generous portion of its (probably) too-abundant running time showing the photos and films that made her famous. Even without other comparison points, her vibrant personality shines through, a joyful sexuality without a hint of shame. She's the naughty girl next door, a wholesome object of desire, a near-perfect embodiment of male sexual desire. Like fellow 50s sex object Marilyn Monroe, she had a voluptuous figure, but, lacking the glamorous Hollywood career, she remained approachable. And then, like Marilyn, Bettie Page went away.
Her smiling embrace of sexuality, not to mention her distinctive hair style and bondage outfits, influenced artists, musicians, and fashion designers over the decades. She came back into the public eye in the 1990s, due in no small measure to Dave Stevens, who created The Rocketeer and modeled the titular character's girlfriend Betty after her. (That's the role played by Jennifer Connelly in Joe Johnston's 1991 movie version.)
Mori recorded extensive audio interviews with Bettie before she died in 2008, but she refused to be shown on camera. She said she wanted to be remembered for how she looked at the peak of her career. That introduces a disconnect as "old Bettie" narrates the events of her life, accompanied by archival footage. She speaks in a Southern drawl that is quite charming, describing the highs and lows of her life with disarming frankness. She has the perspective of a wise woman with a minimum of regrets, accepting the hardships and personal shortcomings that are the byproduct of any life lived to the full.
And it is a fascinating life, reminding of the tribulations suffered -- poverty, sexual assault, spousal abuse, marital discontent, spiritual sadness -- as well as the happiness enjoyed. She sounds like an optimist, which carries the documentary through several dry spots. The film is a bit unbalanced, lingering on the cheesecake shots and rapidly moving through other periods of her life, but, on the whole, Bettie Page Reveals All lives up to its title.
The documentary is now available to watch on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD. (Order from Amazon here.)
The Blu-ray from Music Box Films features a pristine transfer, as should be expected from a recent title, and includes a generous assortment of extras, in most cases providing extended looks at material that is included, in part, in the movie. .
"The Early Years of Bettie Page," running 16 minutes, fills in valuable details, including her enjoyment of performing at a young age. Small snippets of this portion of the audio interview are heard in the film, but this is all good material.
"Filth and Obscenity!" features nearly nine minutes of footage, focusing on Irving and Paula Klaw and their agency, Movie Star News. "Phone Call With Bettie and Paula Klaw" is exactly that, the entire call lasting about 13 minutes.
"Restored Irving Klaw 'Wiggle Movies' Starring Bettie" showcase Bettie as she, er, wiggles in lingerie in a series of short, black and white films, set to modern rock songs about her. This runs about 25 minutes and should satisfy any 'wiggle' enthusiasts. There's also a separate "Bettie Page Music Video" that has one song set to more Bettie imagery.
For completists, three minutes of footage from Bettie's funeral in 2008 is included, as well as 76 restored photos in the "Exclusive Pin-Up Gallery."