Before it became socially acceptable to be an expert on cultural ephemera, there were names that were only known to a few, even though their work was known to millions: comic-book artists, industrial filmmakers, and pin-up models like Bettie Page. Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1923, Page had a hardscrabble upbringing and came to modeling late, starting her career at 27, posing for “camera clubs” in New York. She went on to become one of the most photographed women of the 1950s, appearing scantily clad or nude in girlie magazines, stag films, calendars, and other media that few respectable people back then would acknowledge (though they’d purchase them on the sly). Then Page gave up the business and found religion, only to be rediscovered in the 1970s and 1980s when nostalgists who remembered fantasizing about her as teenagers started collecting her photos and publishing them in special magazines and newsletters. None of those fans seemed to know much about her, but at least they knew her name, and in the process of promoting Page, her devotees brought attention to the whole subculture of 1950s smut, and photographers like Irving Klaw and Bunny Yeager.
Unlike too many fan docs, Mark Mori’s feature-length Page homage Bettie Page Reveals All has the goods when it comes to its subject. The movie tells Page’s story, from youth to fame to obscurity to revival, with the help of rare photos, films, court documents, newspaper clippings, and many of the drawings and re-creations that Page’s fans have made in recent years. More importantly: Mori has Page herself. Before she died in 2008, after decades of avoiding the spotlight, Page agreed to be interviewed at length (albeit not on-camera), so Bettie Page Reveals All is “narrated” by Page, who weighs in with anecdotes and opinions. This makes an immeasurable difference. It’s great to hear from people who remember working with Page, and people who revere her as a style icon, but it’s even better to hear Page describe how it felt to pose nude next to two leopards, or to participate in light bondage shoots. Here, she gets to speak for herself, rather than having other people make assumptions about her choices, and put words into her mouth.
The story Page tells—in a deep, raspy Southern drawl—is disarmingly matter-of-fact, mixing rue and triumph. She dealt with sexual abuse as a child, sexual assault as an adult, public scorn from Congress during an investigation into pornography in the 1950s, hypocrisy from fellow Christians when she tried to become a missionary, and mental instability that kept her from maintaining long-term romantic relationships. But she also had a blast during her modeling heyday, and was unapologetic all of her life about her career, and about the pleasure she took in sex outside of marriage. And when the Page craze took off in the 1990s, her super-fan Dave Stevens—a comic-book artist who’d drawn her into his cult favorite series The Rocketeer—helped connect her with Hugh Hefner, who in turn helped her get legal representation to start making money off her image.
That image is seen over and over in Bettie Page Reveals All: an upbeat, healthy-looking young woman, sporting long black hair, flat bangs, and odd-looking undergarments that she designed and made herself. Over the years, countless critics and commentators have tried to figure out why fairly tame, half-century-old cheesecake photos would remain so popular. Nudity itself is fairly timeless, but images of nude women aren’t exactly scarce, or lacking in variety—especially nowadays. Bettie Page Reveals All repeats some of the old theories, from the people who photographed and admired Page, about her vibrancy, her girl-next-door quality, and how exciting it is even now to see someone so unashamedly unrepressed—and from a fairly repressive era, to boot. Mori doesn’t try anything daring with the structure of this documentary, and he’s saddled himself with a distractingly rinky-dink score, but he succeeds in capturing the essence of what made Page endure. And after watching Bettie Page Reveals All, even longtime devotees may not be able to look at one of her pictures again without hearing her voice, remembering her story, and appreciating her joy all the more.