“It’s sort of confusing whether she was a real person or not,” says burlesque performer Dita Von Teese at the beginning of Mark Mori’s intriguing documentary about pin-up legend and cult icon Bettie Page. Von Teese is trying to explain the model’s enduring appeal and wonders whether the line between fantasy and reality is part of the attraction.
But in his film, Mori aims to dispel the mystery of Page — who vanished from the spotlight at 34 — by using her as a narrator for her own story, fleshing her out as a real person and not merely the face (and body) of the sexual revolution.
Even those who don’t know much about Page will find something to enjoy in Bettie Page Reveals All, which takes the audience from a brief look back at her unpleasant childhood (her mother only wanted sons, and her father molested her) to her rise to fame in the 1950s to what came afterward (a devotion to religion, unfortunate relationships and a long-term stay in a psychiatric hospital). She even explains how she got her famous bangs.
Director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Building Bombs, Mori assembles assorted talking heads to discuss Page’s impact on pop culture, including former lovers, designer Todd Oldham and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and he’s clever about using cartoons, movie clips and stills to illustrate Page’s storytelling.
Not surprisingly, the most interesting parts of the film deal with Page’s work in the 1950s, when she posed in skimpy bikinis and sometimes nude for various camera clubs and worked with photographer Bunny Yeager (who will participate in a Q and A session Saturday night at O Cinema Wynwood). Though she’s now viewed through a modern lens as an icon of female sexual freedom, Page became the target of government attacks for her nude modeling and short bondage films.
Today the films in question are regarded as campy fun, not dangerous pornography. Part of the fun of watching Bettie Page Reveals All is marveling at how far we’ve come culturally in the last several decades. But things were different then: Page was arrested once for indecent exposure for posing for outdoor nude shots. She argued the charge down to disorderly conduct; there was nothing “indecent” about what she was doing, she tells Mori.
Page, who died in 2008 in Los Angeles at the age of 85, makes for a blunt but engaging narrator who’s refreshingly candid about sex and her own inner demons. “It came naturally to me,” she says of her ability to strike a pose. Mori never shows the older Page; she wants to be remembered the way she used to be. Judging from the passions she still generates, I’m guessing her wish has already come true.
Cast: Bettie Page, Dita Von Teese, Hugh Hefner.
Director: Mark Mori.
Screenwriter: Doug Miller.
Producer: Mark Mori.
Running time: 101 minutes. Sexual content and graphic nudity throughout. In Miami Dade: Koubek Center, O Cinema Wynwood, O Cinema Miami Shores; in Broward: Gateway. O Cinema Wynwood will also present “Bettie by Bunny” a photo exhibit of Page’s most iconic images by photographer Bunny Yeager, who will participate in a post-film Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening Saturday at O Cinema Wynwood.