I believe the biggest challenge to making a good documentary is that while you may have a fascinating subject, you still need to be a skilled filmmaker to make a compelling and memorable film. I’ll even settle for a ‘not bad’ film. Bettie Page was, and continues to be, a compelling and fascinating subject. Bettie’s image and singular style has been so widely popularized in the last decade that its somewhat hard to maintain the boundaries between the real Bettie and the cartoon/burlesque girl/rock-a-billy modern day ‘Betties” one sees frequently. And even with all of her footage, iconic style, sexuality, and a parade of adoring fans and friends testifying on film, it needs more. In the end it is just a chronicle and that’s unfortunate because there is a bigger picture here.
While I knew much of the basic outline of Bettie’s life, there were facts about her, and her illustrious career, which came as a surprise. To its credit, one of the assets of “Bettie Page Reveals All” is that it is narrated by Bettie herself, recorded prior to her death in 2008. Knowing that was one of the major draws for me as I was unsure as to whether she was still living, and filmmaker Mark Mori was able to record a long narrative from her. Beyond the multitude of images of her, and there are MANY remarkable, luminescent and truly sexy photos, it is her running commentary which is the thread that holds most of the film together, but is also somewhat staccato and reveals no insights. Insights that we want to know, insights which would tie threads together.
Her attitudes toward her modelling work, even the S&M scenarios, and toward nudity, were genuinely trailblazing. She says, as almost everyone in the film corroborates, that she was proud and unashamed to be naked in front of the camera and expressed no shame whatsoever in the kind work she was doing. Of course it bears mentioning that this was not “Hustler” style explicitness, but for the day any nude photography was seriously questionable in taste and its creation deeply clandestine. She was universally liked by those she worked with and the side stories of those for whom she modeled, in particular the siblings Paula & Irving Klaw, and photographer Bunny Yeager, are in and of themselves a history lesson of the pin-up tradition. It was remarkable to me to see photos of her very early career where she has yet to cut her signature bangs. She was, honestly, a fairly plain young woman with a great figure. But with the bangs – which not only became her trademark silhouette, but truly altered her face and the way it appears in photographs – she is unforgettable and deeply compelling. She was it ALL, sexy, approachable, unusual, natural and most of all joyful. Her smile is so genuine and luminous it makes you happy just to look at her. And then, she left. Just like that. She admits to feeling that having reached her early 30s she felt “too old” to be modelling, and there were of course extenuating circumstances. What unfolds in her life following her modelling is, as one might expect, not altogether happy or successful. We meet a former spouse and learn of a turning point in her life which would alter the rest of her life. It is that – the knowledge that we are given which leads us to question whether it may in fact have influenced many of her choices. And it is in the lack of follow through – the lack of speculation – that the film falls flat. It may very well be enough for most audiences to just watch the report on her life and glorify her as she is well deserving of the glory. But to explore the connections, the threads and shadow parts, would have elevated the film to more than just a pretty girl.