Born in the 1920s South, riddled with poverty and adversity, two young women dreamed of much more. Luckily (or in some eyes, unluckily), both were armed with beauty, magnetism and Southern sensibility. One overcame physical abuse at the hands of her father and a stint in a Protestant orphanage to become her high school class salutatorian (losing out to the valedictorian by a quarter of a point) and attend teacher’s college. The other helped out her mother, a housekeeper for a teachers’ dorm, and went on to attend secretarial classes. Both headed to New York City. One was walking along the beach at Coney Island when a cop and amateur photographer offered to take photos of her for a lookbook. The other had her portrait taken by her brother-in-law and hung up in his photography store on 5th Avenue. Both would have screentests at big studios: one at 20th Century Fox, the other at MGM. One was Bettie Page and the other was Ava Gardner. Both icons, both notorious, and both with legacies lasting long past their deaths, let alone retirements.
This past summer, Simon & Schuster published “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,” which was comprised of journalist Peter Evans‘ conversations with Ava Gardner, conducted two years before her death. Their recorded exchanges were intended for a ghostwritten autobiography that was ultimately never completed. Reading these conversations, even in edited form, feels more like an intrusion than an exploration, but what makes the 305 pages pervertedly palatable is Gardner’s uninhibited frankness about her life, past and career—cussing, 3 A.M. paranoid phone calls and all. While she still remains in the public memory as a glamor icon of a bygone era, the book provides a glimpse of the drinking, kicking and screaming side that few—beyond lovers and studio folks—got to see.
Whereas Gardner stands statuesque on her Hollywood pedestal today, Bettie Page worked her way through the seedier side of glamor from posing for amateur photography clubs to being the nation’s go-to bondage pinup. She has been thrown into cult icon status, her style and image being showcased on fashion catwalks (Jean Paul Gaultier, Victoria’s Secret, etc.), homaged in music videos (most clearly in Beyonce‘s “Why Don’t You Love Me?“), and merchandized with posters, figurines and other knickknacks for mass consumption. Neither led happy lives, both marrying and divorcing multiple times, along with battling tendencies towards mental illness (Gardner’s grandfather had been institutionalized, Page suffered from schizophrenia and was institutionalized for nearly a decade). Funnily enough, Gardner drank like a fish whereas Page made a point to never touch the stuff, especially after one indelicate photo session involving some alcohol, which she deemed out of everything (arrests, assaults, divorces, shock therapy, etc.) her greatest regret.
Consistent with their career parallels, however disparate, Bettie Page also conducted interviews late in life, with a director instead of a journalist, and the result is Mark Mori‘s “Bettie Page Reveals All,” an authorized biographical documentary opening today in Manhattan. Unfortunately, the film feels more like a tepid outline of Page’s life than a real exploration, let alone big reveal, of the woman behind the icon.
Similar to the Gardner book, the main highlight is Page’s audio with her deep, near-gravelly Tennessee drawl. Throughout the film, she maintains a matter-of-fact, monotone tone. Even as she describes her “sex fiend” father and how she had to earn her ten cents for the movies by letting him fool around with her or how she was told she could never pose for pinups ever again after a scar-worthy injury, Page’s voice stays just as steady as if she were recalling a class project or job interview or other standard occurrence, acting as a testament to her survival instincts. It remains debatable whether they’re due more to perseverance or delusion, but she did not elaborate too much more beyond the clear facts of her life. As an interview subject, she states rather than regales stories.
She’s frank, but not all that enthused, let alone impassioned, in her recollections, beyond the moments where she believed she heard the voice of God. Not-so-funnily, it’s hearing such voices that drove her later in life to brandishing a knife at her third ex-husband and stepchildren, attacking her landlady and winding up in an institution for eight years, which she brushes off as merely a mental breakdown. For a woman of such impetuous nature in life and in front of the camera (showcased in the film by the panning and zooming in and out of her photo stills), her narration is very cool and calculated, one of the drawbacks of a subject being knowingly interviewed. That being said, she did laugh a few times. Once at her icon status—”number one bondage queen, they call me”—and another time at her “huge mistake” second marriage—”all we had in common was movies, sex, and hamburgers.”
The film follows a standard biodoc structure—introduction of the subject through the words of third parties (including a Bettie Page-themed art show in SoHo, Dita Von Teese sharing her indebtedness to her and Victoria’s Secret models making vague adulatory comments), follow the subject’s life mostly chronologically interspersed with relevant images footage and soundbites from friends and admirers (including the co-founder of the Bettie Scouts of America, founded in 1992).
Through interviews with her former colleagues and Hugh Hefner spliced in with McCarthy-era footage, the documentary’s narrative tries to put forth the idea of Page as a sort of figurehead for subversive, though not wholly indecent, speech in a post-WW2 era of repression. Like everything else in the doc, this idea is touched on lightly, but not in-depth enough to leave a lasting impression. Similarly, the film also sets her up as the defining icon of feminist femininity (being sexual without being cheap), though they don’t explore the implication of her bondage shoots to a satisfying degree or that of her later-in-life exploits, including passing out Billy Graham literature, which would at least contradict that feminist image, if not negate it.
In addition, the film’s soundtrack is ill-fitted and ill-timed overall. There’s one moment in particular and early on in the film that serves as a glaring example. In the sequence, Page is in the middle of describing her early days in New York City and begins to talk about getting into a car with strangers to go dancing. With a modern audience’s sensibilities, her words would have sounded ominous enough, even with the story being set in the 1940s, but then a seedy sounding score (like something out of a ’70s/’80s gritty TV drama) kicks in and adds an unintentional, ironic, almost-humorous note to her very tragic and traumatizing story of being forced to fellate a gang of strange men. Again, all of the above is told very matter-of-factly by Page and without much further explanation beyond what happened. Whereas most women would have panicked and probably moved out of the city, let alone be able to face men again, Page continued on working as a secretary and posing on the side. Unfortunately for us, she doesn’t explain in the documentary why she didn’t pack up and move right then and there, rather than waiting a few more years to flee into Floridian anonymity.
At the end of the documentary, that is what “Bettie Page Reveals All” is missing—an explanation of Bettie Page’s enigma. Just as Page herself had all of the pieces (looks, brains, charisma) to be a bona fide star a la Ava Gardner in her heyday rather than a latter-day cult icon, this film has all of the pieces to be a great and thorough documentary (a cult turned popular subject, new and old footage, interviews with admirers, friends and colleagues, authorization by the lady herself), but misses the mark. There’s just something unnervingly clinical about the whole film, exemplified by a tape recording of boyfriend Richard Arbib saying, “she liked sex and was very good at it.” It all just lacks the va-va-voom vitality of Bettie Page that has drawn us in for decades and endures as her lasting legacy. [C+]