Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All

Bettie Page Reveals All is a fascinating, if flawed, documentary feature about the world's most iconic pin-up and fetish queen. Page died in 2008 at the age of 85, a famous woman who disappeared at the height of her modelling career to become an enigma. Popularized in part by artist Dave Stevens including a Page-like character in his comic The Rocketeer, Bettie Page's pin-up work saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s that continued to grow as the years past. For much of this time, Page was unaware of her return to the spotlight, subsisting on Social Security as she lived a life of anonymity. Eventually, she was located and connected with an agent who ensured she received compensation for the rampant use of her likeness. Her later years were comfortable.

Page rarely appeared in public following her rediscovery, and avoided having her picture taken, as she preferred people remember her as she had looked in the 1950s. Fortunately, before she passed away, she gave extensive interviews about her life, which makes up the bulk of this film. Age had turned her voice gravelly, but hearing her southern accent matter-of-factly discuss this topic or that is fascinating, even if the clip art and stock footage used to illustrate her story in the early going is arbitrary at best.

The fact that Page essentially tells her own story is both the film's greatest strength as well as weakness. Many of the topics she touches on are jarring in their abruptness, one or two sentences at best before moving along. Frustratingly, over and over again she makes a comment that begs for a follow-up question that never comes (the interview was conducted in a Q&A format, but apart from a couple of brief interactions, the interviewer is edited out). Speaking as a professional interviewer (is that even a thing?) the myriad things left unsaid and unexplored are maddening. One example come early on, when discussing Page's education. In high school, she desperately worked to become valedictorian, because Vanderbilt guaranteed full ride scholarships to the top student in every Tennessee high school class. Despite her efforts, she ended up salutatorian, mere tenths of a point behind a male classmate. Instead of a full ride to Vandy, she got a $100 scholarship to Peabody College. The immediate thing that leapt to my mind--and The Wife's as well--was that in 1942, women didn't often pursue higher education. In many cases, they were active discouraged. It doesn't take much imagination to picture a school principal in Tennessee tweaking the grades so that the Vandy scholarship wouldn't be "wasted" on a woman. Page would face gender discrimination--if not outright misogyny--time and again throughout her life, and her valedictorian/salutatorian issue would've added an interesting bit of context. Alas, the question remains unasked, that bit of history unexplored.

Despite the wide swath of questions not asked, Page does cover a tremendous amount of territory with her good-humored voice over. Others who played a role in Page's life, from Paula Klaw to Bunny Yeager to Hugh Hefner provide extensive commentary in their own right, either via new or archival footage. Even if their thoughts are not deeply insightful, the anecdotes are certainly entertaining and amusing. A minor annoyance--Paula Klaw actually took the vast majority of the Page photos sold by her brother, Irving Klaw, but the film portrays her more as a business manager than a creative talent. A very interesting revelation involved the mediocre 2005 movie The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol (the film's worth watching for Mol's impressive turn as Page). At the time it came out, Page was very vocal in her displeasure with it, yet certain scenes that were dismissed as fabrication at the time are confirmed here by Page herself. There were several other points where Page seemed to be fudging the truth some, or simply mis-remembering events. It would've been nice to have some cross references, a corroborating witness or document to back Page up, but this is very much her show and what she says goes unquestioned. For the most part, she's bluntly honest, and it's a credit to her that her solo narrative can carry the film so long.

To be honest, as I watched this film, I was struck more and more by the similarities between Bettie Page and Edna Milton, who I interviewed extensively before she died for my book on the infamous Chicken Ranch (which is still sitting on publishers' desks, looking for a home). Both were born in the 1920s in poor, rural America--Milton in Oklahoma, Page in Tennessee--to dysfunctional families with the Great Depression and World War II disrupting their lives. Neither had children, yet both went through a string of tumultuous marriages while making a living as best they could before abruptly disappearing to anonymity at the height of their fame. There's a difference between pin-up modeling and prostitution, but in 1950s America the distinction was a very narrow one. They survived in an era of rampant discrimination and succeeded despite the deck being stacked against them because of their gender. It's a sobering thought to imaging how many times that same story played out across the country in that era, and how many women didn't have the happy ending Page did, or even Milton's relatively soft landing.

Anyone who is a fan of Bettie Page--devoted or casual--will enjoy this documentary. After a bit of a slow start, it builds momentum and simply dazzles with hundreds of still photographs of Page (many of which I'd never seen, and some never-before published). Her sad descent into schizophrenia is well-chronicled, as is her religious beliefs and efforts to become a missionary. It's all here. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

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