Every erotic model has a backstory, but it's not one we're usually eager to hear. There may be a few "biographical" details thrown out there to help fuel a fantasy ("Cheyenne loves bubble baths and chocolate-covered strawberries." "Brock fixes vintage cars and enjoys working out at the gym."), but beyond that, the stuff of real life — especially if it involves poverty, abuse, unhappiness, religious fervor, mental instability, and divorce — is kept as far out of the picture as possible.
When the pin-up is Bettie Page, whose image has had a surprising and unlikely endurance, we're uncharacteristically curious. Our culture's erotic ideals shift with disorienting speed, and such models are meant to be somewhat interchangeable, if not totally anonymous and disposable. But Page nonetheless pops out of her throw-away medium. There's the beautiful body, of course, but there's also something ineffable: the radiant, changeable, white-hot persona, instantly announced, and just as quickly understood. The fans, photographers, and intimates of Page who speak in the new documentary Bettie Page Reveals All are certainly articulate about the subject at hand, but even they struggle to identify what this thing of hers is. Suffice it to say, there's something about Bettie. Nearly 60 years have passed since she posed for these tatty pictures and shaky, amateurish films, but they're still with us, and if anything, their presence and influence in pop culture, fashion, movies, and music videos have grown more prominent with time.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Mark Mori takes a look into Page's life to try to reveal more about the real woman. Page herself narrates the documentary and we learn the basic outline and some of the hardships of her life. She has a handsome, surprisingly husky speaking voice with a strong Southern accent and a witty, distinctive, incisive style when she describes her ups and downs. Born into poverty in Nashville in a large, indifferent, and often abusive household, Page married and divorced young, eventually turning to pin-up modeling to get by.
Though the documentary wastes a lot of time on celebrity interviews (Are you dying to hear what Perez Hilton thinks of Bettie Page?) and trying to inflate Page's importance, there are nonetheless more valuable, smaller gems throughout. Fans will be pleased that images of Page, many of them rare or previously unpublished, flow by on the screen almost non-stop. It's interesting to learn that though the text accompanying her most famous pictures often identified her as being in her 20s, the preternaturally youthful and kittenish Page was actually in her early 30s.
Though the atmosphere in which some of the pictures were produced was clearly lurid — the camera clubs in which groups of amateur male photographers hired models like Page to pose alluringly for private sessions seem especially shady — Page says in the film that she almost always enjoyed what she was doing, that she never thought of it as anything but innocent and fun at the time. This shows in the images and is also perhaps the source of some of their power: against the odds, even in denigrating circumstances, our fantasy is having a good time.
And admirably, in spite of a reactionary and repressive culture, Page refused to think that there was anything indecent in her work, and she maintained this stance even in trials and Senate hearings related to pornography charges, where doing so might have made things easier for her. But one also begins to wonder if her unabashed disregard to the sexual mores of her day might also foreshadow her later, more acute break with societal norms. Her adopted religious fervor seemed to be both a salve to her mental breakdown and symptomatic of it. And for some reason, the older Page, who sounds healthy, insightful, and funny when talking about her past problems, never actually appears on screen; this ends up seeming like a crucial, missing piece of the puzzle. Page does not reveal all.
The movie is mostly for fans curious to know more about the particulars in the life of this enigmatic cult figure, whose real biography and even whereabouts remained unknown for years. Though the facts are dutifully delivered, they're often prosaic and undramatic. If you don't get it from the pictures themselves, the film is unlikely to stoke your excitement. The life is just a life after all. What really made Page into "Bettie Page" remains elusive.