Bettie Page is, to our celebrity-crazed culture, an enigma. “She’s lasted because she has that rare quality that’s hard to define,” raves fashion designer Todd Oldham. “It’s that sort of ultimate star quality,” he adds. Rebecca Romijn regards her as “the most important glamour icon” who managed to “pave the way” for all those who came after her. Models who wouldn’t deign to emulate her physique worship at the altar of her legacy, while Perez Hilton spews reverential diatribes about how she sought to embody female empowerment. The opening scenes of Bettie Page Reveals All are filled with sycophantic adoration from people who have no idea who they’re really talking about. No one’s really known Bettie Page, or understood what made her tick. Until now, that is.
The truth behind Bettie Page is simultaneously simpler and more disturbing than any fan could have guessed. And for the first time ever, we have an accurate portrayal of her life, as sanctioned by Page herself. It’s as a result of this portrait that the fandemonium around her seems so ludicrous and hollow. Why the praise over her iconographic standing seems sycophantic and vain. Behind every pose, all of the leather and lace, the barely there bikinis and animal print loincloths, there was a free-spirited woman just having a good time. Without agenda or hope of fame, Bettie Page was simply a woman with a dark past, and a closet full of unidentified demons, who wanted nothing more than to experience life, and have a good time.
Bettie Page Reveals All grants the public the rare opportunity to hear Page’s entire story. What’s more important is that we’re hearing it from her lips. The majority of the documentary is narrated by Page herself, granting us unprecedented access to her story told her way.
The byproduct of an emotionally abusive mother who briefly abandoned her and her siblings, and a sexually abusive father, she had a very difficult childhood. Married for the first time at a young age, she found herself in an abusive relationship, and ultimately wound up divorced. Her initial time spent in San Francisco and New York was just as tumultuous, as she found herself the victim of sexual oppression in the film industry, and sexual assault on the streets.
She’d given modeling a try in the city, but no one would hire her. She was too “hippy” by industry standards. Even in the 1960’s, rail thin was the ideal. One day on Coney Island, everything changed. A Brooklyn police officer asked to take her picture, and passively suggested she give bangs a try. And just like that, a legend was born. She got involved with the Camera Clubs in New York, and found her niche: pin-up.
The camera and the photographers loved her equally. She was effortlessly effervescent, and managed to pose from head to toe. “Everything moved,” said Sam Menning, one of the various photographers she worked with at the time. “She smiled with her face,” he added, “she smiled with her whole body.”
Every photographer she ever worked with reacted the same way: complete rapture. She was a photographer’s dream. Vibrant and boisterous, she was uniquely at home in her own skin, and keenly aware of her body.
Much of the documentary focuses on Page’s heyday, a period in her life about which most people can speculate. It’s the earlier years, and when she became reclusive that are the most significant bits of the puzzle. After falling off the radar, she gained and lost a few more husbands, and predominantly returned to her religious roots as a Born Again Christian. In the confusion of it all, she found herself in the throws of a psychological break, and wound up institutionalized for the better part of a decade. What’s most revealing about Page is her reaction to her fame. Somehow, she was entirely unaware of the icon she had become.
Page’s story manages to camouflage the glaring flaws in the film’s production value. The soundtrack is, at times, nonsensical, while the editing unfortunately makes the film feel like a cheap afterschool special. It detracts from the weight of the subject matter, reading more like neglectful treatment of Page’s life story.
However, the material itself is fascinating. As Page refused to be filmed, wanting the public to remember her as she was, there’s no footage to coincide with her narration. Director Mark Mori cleverly includes archival footage and vintage film clips as filler for her story, throwing in bits from schlocky exploitation films such as Married Too Young for exaggerated emphasis. The inclusion of such elements adds a distinct sense of style to the film, one Page is often associated with: a Rockabilly, pin-up, renegade image. Ironically, this only perpetuates the false notion of a contrived figure, a self-aware creature who was calculatingly starting a revolution.
The public is aware of Bettie Page only cultural icon. To the world, she’s the definition of pin-up sexiness, and Rockabilly style. Women imitate her legendary bangs, while trying to replicate her effortless poses. She’s branded on flesh, the naughty little sex kitten immortalized in ink. But these are just the ghosts of a rumor, an eccentricity cultivated over time and due to obscurity. Bettie Page isn’t the bangs, or the bikinis, the whips, chains and spankings or the sheer fitted sweaters. She’s a damaged woman who wanted nothing more than to be happy and make others happy, too. For a woman with such a sordid past, she managed to live her life innocently, with conviction and without regret. Bettie Page Reveals All breaks through the façade of the iconography and reveals a human being, something celebrity culture doesn’t really know what to do with.