In posters, comic books and in “girlie magazines,” hers was a truly iconic image — jet-black hair, bangs and a beaming, accessible smile that said “girl next door,” even if those nude or semi-nude poses screamed “ bad girl next door.”
Bettie Page was a Victoria’s Secret model before there was a Victoria’s Secret, a sex kitten’s sex kitten, posing in lingerie or in the nude for magazines or creepy “camera clubs” where “enthusiasts” would hire her for the day to strip and pose so that they could photograph her.
Yes, she was an “inspiration” to generations of models who came after her, and to women who realized they could find fame and fortune based on little more than their looks and their willingness to exploit it.
She could have been the first Kardashian.
But as Bettie Page Reveals All, the new documentary about her, explains, it was a tough life of contradictions. She was naive yet very smart, religious and became “fanatically” so in her later years. But she never saw what she was doing as wrong, even if society disagreed. And if she lived long enough to see and even profit from her huge impact on the culture, we still don’t believe her suggestion that she had few regrets.
Filmmaker (Building Bombs) and Page enthusiast Mark Mori taped interviews with Bettie Mae Page in the late 1990s, 10 years before she died. And that allows the candid Page herself to narrate her story — Southern bombshell discovered in New York and turned into a fetish film and nude photo star of the ’40s and ’50s. Swimsuit shots on postcards, magazine shoots in lingerie and bikinis of her own design, posters — she enjoyed a sort of notorious fame, even if she hated that word.
Uninhibited and upbeat, she was “this combination of naughty and innocence,” Hugh Hefner says.
“She smiled with her whole body,” a fan who knew her enthuses.
And she showed off that body in photos and films that were often called pornographic in her day, but seem quaint and cute now.
Bettie Page Reveals All lets us hear her speak of an unhappy childhood, failed marriages, mental illness and exploitation — but without ever a trace of bitterness. She wouldn’t sit for a filmed interview with Mori. Like Garbo she “closed the door” to preserve the beautiful images of her youth. So Mori covers the chat with other interviews, an endless supply of cheesecake shots, old family photos and clips from her silent, 16mm blue movies (pretty tame, by today’s standards).
The most recent photo of her is a grim police mugshot from the ’70s. That it is included tips you that the story takes plenty of dark turns.
But Mori, like Page herself, emphasizes the positive and lets us see the playfulness in photos that stirred up such a sexually repressed stink in the buttoned-down 1950s. We learn of the villains in her life, but also the unlikely heroes.
And we’re taken back to a naive era, when the boundaries of smut were narrower, when even the images of an unlikely adult star (she never did sex films or “real” porn) seem now like good, clean fun.
Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas; opens Jan. 17 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth