There’s plenty of cheesecake in “Bettie Page Reveals All.” But the best thing about this documentary portrait of the beloved 1950s pin-up is its meaty narration, courtesy of Page herself, speaking in the low, slightly gravelly register of an aging Southern belle.
Getting this audio — apparently recorded late in Page’s life — was a coup for filmmaker Mark Mori, who befriended Page in the years before her 2008 death, at age 85. It’s a little strange, then, that the film makes no mention of exactly how, when or where it was recorded. At times, Page sounds like she’s speaking on the phone; during other passages it seems like she might have been sitting down with Mori for an in-person interview. Beyond some wordless archival footage from old photo shoots, we never actually see Page as she looked after her modeling career ended, abruptly, in the late 1950s, just before she disappeared from the public eye.
That’s by design, Page tells us; she wants people to remember her from her photos.
And boy, do we. In recent decades, the combination of Page’s girlish bangs, incandescent smile and exuberantly shame-free carnality has experienced a resurgence of popularity, not just among aficionados of vintage pin-up art, but as an expression of timeless style and sex-positive feminism. And yes, as several people interviewed for the film note, Page’s adoption as a post-feminist icon is because of (and not despite) her association with bondage fetishism.
Some of her best-known pictures involve restraint and other taboos (think high-heels, ropes and spanking). Nevertheless, she exudes a hard-to-define combination of innocence and empowerment that — for many people quoted in the film at least — set Page’s participation in the soft-porn industry apart from other, more obviously exploitative situations.
Many of these bondage images were shot by photographer Irving Klaw, who ran a studio and mail-order business with his sister, Paula. Her recollections about rescuing her brother’s negatives from destruction after a federal pornography investigation are among the most fascinating in the film.
Despite Page’s excellent voiceover, “Bettie Page” suffers from embarrassingly choppy editing and a parade of stock film clips used to illustrate episodes recounted by its subject. If Page mentions being in her apartment when she heard a knock on the door, Mori will, sure enough, show us a grainy shot of a generic 1950s apartment building, followed by the sound effect of knocking.
Thanks, but we just heard her say that. These by-the-book illustrations only highlight Page’s physical absence from the project.
Still, the film, which takes a roughly chronological journey through Page’s life, is filled with many juicy tidbits, at least for those of us who aren’t already groupies. Page reminisces — in a tone that’s almost weirdly genial — about her childhood sexual abuse by her father; her multiple marriages (including two to the same abusive man); her conversion to born-again Christianity; and her hospitalization for paranoid schizophrenia.
These fascinating recollections are supplemented by alternately philosophical and sociological interviews with such Bettie Page experts as Greg Theakston, an illustrator and publisher of the comic/fanzine The Betty Pages, and a pajama-clad Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy magazine featured Page as its January 1955 centerfold.
Most of those interviews feel a little too much like filler, except for one with Page’s fourth husband, Harry Lear. Married to Page from 1967 to 1972, Lear helped his ex-wife get treatment after her post-divorce mental breakdown in the early 1970s. He seems like a nice guy, and offers real insights into the film’s subject.
It’s a shame that “Bettie Page Reveals All” isn’t a technically better film. Much of it feels slapdash and rushed. This is especially disappointing given Page’s voiceover, which is wry, wise and, like Page’s old pin-up pictures, an intriguing combination of winsome and wicked.
★ ★ ½
R. At the Avalon. Contains nudity. 90 minutes.