‘Bettie Page Reveals All’ Gives the Pinup Icon a Voice, But Can’t Break Through the Surface

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The joy of the new documentary Bettie Page Reveals All is that you actually get to hear the voice of the woman in the title. Bettie Page’s voice was not a prominent feature of her public persona. Her face, her legs, her smile, the sparkle in her eye? Sure. But whatever she had to say about any of it was usually beside the point. Bettie Page was made to be looked at, not heard, for most of her life.

The documentary inverts that by only letting us hear Page reflect on her life; the camera never cuts away to what she looked like as she was recording. (Page died in 2008.) It’s a clever enough move, one which gives Page a kind of control over her image that she didn’t have for much of her life. The documentary finishes on an amateurish title card in which Page says she really wanted to be remembered as she looked in pictures, and I guess you could say the whole thing was an exercise in granting that wish.

Amateurish, as it happens, is a good word for the entire aesthetic of the documentary. It’s not clear to me precisely what relationship its director, Mark Mori, had to the Bettie Page oeuvre before making this film — in the press kit he says that although “her image was familiar” he didn’t know much about her — but it certainly has the flavor of being assembled by fans. (Mori’s been working in documentaries a long time, which makes this even more curious.) We are given a look at what must be a bulky cross-section of Page’s work, accompanied by the Muzak-y voice-over. At one point it feels like we’re going through her career shoot by shoot. And gradually, over the course of the film, this comes to feel like avoidance.

Here is the factsheet on Bettie Page, pinup model: She was born in Tennessee in 1923, to a couple who would soon divorce. Her father, she said, began molesting her at 13. She graduated at the top of her class from high school and briefly went to college before marrying a high school classmate who turned out to be an abusive jerk. She managed to get a BA, and after divorcing her first husband she went to pursue a dream of being an actress or a fashion model in New York. Even then, as she notes in the documentary, she was deemed “too hippy” to model. So she fell into posing for what were called “camera clubs” — small mail-order organizations ostensibly formed to promote artistic photography but which, in the end, were more about the distribution of nudie pics. These immensely popular clubs were immensely fond of Bettie, and they made her a star whose image popped up on postcards and other memorabilia long after she quit modeling.

There doesn’t seem to be one clear reason why she quit, though persecution by the Estes Kefauver anti-obscenity wing of Congress certainly didn’t help. She was getting older — she stopped modelling around 35 — and seemed to long for another kind of life. She had a sudden conversion to Christianity. And then a psychotic break, multiple incidents threatening people with knives, and a decade of commitment.

Those of you with an eye for drama might think that this latter part of Bettie’s life is in some way the meat of it, but because it was not quite so meticulously photographed, I suppose a documentary was going to find itself at an inevitable loss to convey the truth of those years. Page, for her part, generally speaks slowly and carefully, yet still with a matter-of-fact tone, when addressing them. But then the dysfunction of her life is a thing that people seem oddly afraid to address. In Mary Harron’s 2005 feature The Notorious Life of Bettie Page, that ending is sort of left out altogether. (Which, interestingly, Page still didn’t like, apparently yelling, “Lies, lies!” in a screening.) You could read that as respect. Or, as most reviewers of the film have, as befuddlement over exactly what was going on, all along, in Bettie’s head.

Mori, it turns out, is not the kind of person you want opining on the politics of such things. Not two paragraphs after he’s praised Page as a “post-feminist role model,” he identifies her as liberating to women because she “is a way for modern women to access their image of themselves as sexy and confident.” I guess feminism hates sexiness and confidence in this view. But in fact I sympathize somewhat with his confusion, because this culture doesn’t seem to have a way to talk about women like Page. I don’t mean that in the pejorative, “screwed up women like her” way. I mean it in the sense that there is little vocabulary, critical or otherwise, to acknowledge that Page might have had conflicting feelings about all of it. On the day she was interviewed for the soundtrack here, it’s obvious she was feeling pretty sanguine, but it could not have always been that way. She must have had her frustrations and joys, maybe even sometimes at the same time, in a way that transcends the damaged/liberated dichotomy that seems to be the only frame available for stories like hers.

There is, of course, another way. Mary Harron once said, in an interview with the feminist Susie Bright, that Page was as emotionally opaque as she was for a reason which was about neither strength nor weakness, but just plain survival:

Many men who’ve seen the film complain that Bettie doesn’t react much to the sexual abuse: she doesn’t show more rage or grief. But most men have no idea how much sexual shit women go through, how many of their female friends, relatives, and co-workers have been raped or abused in some way. They don’t know about it because the women don’t talk about it, and just get on with their lives, as Bettie did.

This thesis, notwithstanding Bettie’s own resistance to Harron’s film, always struck me as about right. Page was not who she was because she was liberated ahead of time; her ability to shine in front of a camera wasn’t about her having attained a higher plane of consciousness. It was about accepting things as they were, and getting on with them. Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, and all that.

A lot of people in this documentary spend a lot of time praising Bettie for her skills at conveying a surface. A better one would understand that the subject, in being so sanguine and even-tempered and matter-of-fact about her life, is selling us another one — and one it would be good if someone, anyone, could break.