A Side Of Bettie Page You've (Somehow) Never Seen
A tantalizing nugget lies half-buried in Mark Mori's engaging documentary about Bettie Page, the 1950s pinup who's inspired an endlessly self-renewing retro-cult of fans both male and female.
In the middle of a screening of Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page, it seems, a voice was heard yelling "Lies! All lies!"
That voice belonged to Page herself, it turned out — and I'd give a great deal to learn what it was that so incensed a woman who, after all, took unalloyed pleasure in the unorthodox modeling career she fell into and the killer body that went with it.
Mori refers to Harron's 2005 biopic, a touch snidely, as "unauthorized." I didn't much care for the earlier movie, but why wouldn't it be? For better and worse, The Notorious Bettie Page was a work of fiction, and the least of its troubles was misinformation. "Authorized" has its drawbacks, and among them in this instance is the rather worshipful tone of Mori's Bettie Page Reveals All.
That said, it's not hard to see why so many people show up in his movie to testify their love for Page — from Hugh Hefner, who helped her get decent representation after she moved to Los Angeles, to televangelist Robert Schuller, who conducted her memorial service. Her style was a major influence on performers such as Beyoncé, the film argues, and her voluptuous curves the envy of a fleet of twiggy supermodels.
That's not counting the generations of young women (and men) for whom Page remains a pioneer of feminism and sexual freedom. On their websites and fanzines you can see plenty of footage and photos (also in Mori's film) of Page happily cracking a whip over another model, or sporting one of the outrageous bikinis she designed and made herself. Or minus any bikini, displaying a generous endowment of pubic hair without a hint of embarrassment.
But then by most accounts — and Mori had generous access to Page's friends, as well as to photographers and former husbands and ex-lovers — the blue-eyed, black-haired girl next door enjoyed her perfect body as much as her audience did. She got a big kick out of posing in the buff, the film makes clear, and saw no contradiction between her sensuality and the Christian faith she practiced all her life.
But Page was out of sync with her times. Was it the leather accessorizing or Page's lack of shame that brought her to the beady-eyed attention of Sen. Estes Kefauver, for whom Page's innocent sexuality seemed second only to communism in its pernicious effect on the nation's morals?
At 35, aware that she had only a limited time to model, Page abruptly quit and disappeared into seclusion in Florida. She married, grew more devout, and suffered a psychotic break in which she forced her husband and stepson at knifepoint to gaze at a picture of Jesus for several hours.
We never see Page in old age, but Mori's coup was to get her voice on audiotape not long before she died. In a throaty smoker's growl that's enchantingly at odds with the flirty-ingenue image she projected in her prime, Page comes across as worldly, direct, and both amused and appreciative at having been anointed a heroine of the women's movement.
She is as matter-of-fact about having been molested by her father — and the gang rape she endured not long after she arrived in New York — as she is about having enjoyed her stint as America's sexiest and sweetest pinup.
Bettie Page doesn't in fact reveal all, nor does it try to reconcile the dark and light in Page's life. Undoubtedly she could have used some emotional rescue early on.
But here's a thought: Perhaps it was precisely Page's lack of introspection — she uses the same even tone to chart her life as a continuous flow of events, both good and bad — that allowed her to leapfrog a rotten childhood and forge ahead to create a space in which to revel and celebrate the lovely body that so many had tried to exploit.
That she continues to invite not just Beyoncé and Katy Perry but millions of adoring men and women along for the ride is icing on the cake.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.