Oof, where to begin with this one.
The documentary Bettie Page Reveals All is a conundrum. Mark Mori's film tells a story a lot of Bettie Page fans have wanted to hear, but in a chintzy manner that doesn't live up to the reputation of its subject.
Like a lot of people, I came to know about the 1950s pin-up model Bettie Page because Dave Stevens turned her into a character in The Rocketeer,* a popular independent comic book in the 1980s (and later a movie, with Jennifer Connelly in the role). By that time, the real Bettie Page had become even more of a fringe celebrity than she had been in her heyday, back when she posed for photos in girlie magazines and for fetish collectors. This sparked a new interest in Bettie, and the mystery of what had happened to her only increased her appeal. Her most famous photos possess a playful adventurousness that men and women alike find appealing. Even her more extreme bondage pictures show a certain innocence that seems impossible to fake. Yet, little was known about the woman with the black bangs that inspired generations of imitators.
Bettie Page Reveals All attempts to rectify this. The glamour icon emerged from obscurity in the mid 1990s when she realized a cottage industry had sprung up using her image. Even then, Bettie refused to be seen in public or photographed, afraid to ruin the image her fans had. She did, however, sit down with Mori and a microphone to tell stories about how an ambitious Southern girl became an influential pin-up and eventual target of Estes Kefauver's moral witchhunts. The anecdotes are fantastic, ever if the true personality of the model never entirely materializes. The best parts of this oral history are when Mori can match the story to the photo shoot.
The worst is on either side of Bettie's professional career, either prior to her early 1950s debut or after her 1957 retirement at the age of 34. Lacking any Page images to work with, Mori resorts to cheesy stock footage. His taste level is poor, and when he couples the low-rent clips with cheap open-source music (which plays constantly, without a moment's pause), the result is amateurish and at times even off-putting. Bettie Page Reveals All is, to put it kindly, a mid-level fan effort, a less-scandalous version of the "E! True Hollywood Story" that Mori regularly cribs from, bottom corner logo and all.
So, this makes Bettie Page Reveals All a bit of a chore to sit through. Luckily, Bettie's monologue wins out. A little more than an hour into the documentary, Bettie reveals what happened after she left New York: failed marriages, religious conversion, higher education, and more than her fair share of troubles. There were ups and downs, just like in any life. The everygirl evident in all those old photos went searching for the normal existence that many imagined informed her finest work, and she found first-hand that normalcy is relative.
Some of what happened to Bettie Page proves to be a disappointing end for a woman that deserved better, given the impact that her modeling had on fashion and culture. Likewise, she deserves a better vehicle by which to share her story, something with the skill and budget behind it to make a movie that matches Page's personality and artistry. Given that Bettie passed away in 2008 at age 85, she's not going to get a chance to tell her story any other way herself, so curious admirers are going to have to suck it up and take what they are getting.
* Full Disclosure: I worked with Dave Stevens, as well as Jim Silke, in the mid-1990s at Dark Horse Comics as an editor on projects based around Bettie Page. Artwork from some of these comic books are featured in Bettie Page Reveals All. So, I found it particularly offensive that the film used otherwise innocent comic book panels to illustrate the more traumatic elements of Bettie Page's life, thus altering the intent of the original creation.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.