Bettie Page Reveals All, a new documentary from director Mark Mori and writer/editor Douglas Miller, will premiere at SIFF Cinema Uptown December 5 at 7pm. The special engagement will feature a performance from none other than Seattle’s beloved Miss Kitty Baby (we couldn’t think of a more perfect performer to represent Seattle burlesque for a night honoring Bettie) and a Skype Q&A with director Mark Mori. In case you miss the premiere’s fanfare don’t fret: Bettie Page Reveals All returns for a one week run at the SIFF Film Center starting January 3.
As anyone interested in pin-up culture and burlesque well knows, there’s never, ever been anyone like Bettie Page. Many fans (including myself) think of her fondly as the mysteriously compelling gateway drug that sparked their initial interest in pin-ups and burlesque. Bettie was the shining, charismatic patron saint of it all. The exuberance, total confidence, and sense of fun radiating from every image of Bettie from her peak modeling years of 1950-1957 made her unforgettable. No matter the pose- playing in the sand or toying with some of the most ridiculous props imaginable- Bettie was at ease. Her beautiful body was only outshone by the light in her eyes and that megawatt, playful smile. Bettie looked alive; she looked fun.
Bettie’s path to becoming a cultural icon was as unusual as it is legendary. If you were around in the 90s when she resurfaced (with the help of comic book artist Dave Stevens and Hugh Hefner), you may recall the joy it was to unearth more about this mysterious pin-up from the 1950s and what had happened to her in the years since. Ebay was ripe with photos, some of them signed. Camera club members who had taken famous shots of Bettie (such as Art Amsie and pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager) were actually reachable by phone or mail. Bettie herself remained elusive, although suddenly there were biographies, including the excellent Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend and The Real Bettie Page, which upset some by revealing that Bettie had physically attacked her landlord and was subsequently arrested during a bout of mental illness.
In Bettie Page Reveals All, rare audio interviews Bettie gave before her death are made public through Bettie’s trusted friend, director Mark Mori. Bettie narrates her own story through lengthy excerpts combined with photos, archival 16mm footage, and interviews with those that knew her. Mori once again brings Bettie’s charisma and magnetism back into the public eye, beginning with brief interviews with well-known fans (Hugh Hefner, artist Olivia De Berardinis, Dita Von Teese) and including a few moments of footage from Bettie’s service at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in 2008. The film attempts to explain what set Bettie apart against a backdrop of wistful footage and vintage photos; also touching on the ridiculous censorship battles of the period and Bettie’s outrage at being arrested for “indecency” after a secluded outdoor shoot. Bettie explains her early life and modeling discovery in 1950 with a touch of humor and a giggle here and there, as if in hindsight she found much of what happened to her quite amusing. The film touches on all the major events of her career, from the camera club and girlie mag days to her famous collaborations with Irving and Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager before her retirement from modeling in 1957.
Though Bettie wanted the world to remember her as she was in her photos, it’s hard to imagine the reclusive star having too many complaints with how her words and life are treated in the documentary. Mori allows those that cared about her to explain what happened to Bettie in her later years, and Bettie herself speaks about her failed marriages, nervous breakdown, and the ten years she spent in a psychiatric hospital suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
What follows is a reprint from Music Box Film’s promotional materials on the documentary. The Q&A is well worth sharing and contains a lot of great insight and information from the perspective of friend, fan, and documentary filmmaker Mark Mori.
So what gave you the idea to do a documentary on Bettie Page?
Mark Mori: I was living and working in Los Angeles at the time and my entertainment attorney was also representing Bettie in the entertainment field. I had lunch with him and he showed me the book “Bettie Page: Life of a Pin-Up Legend” which had just been published. I told him that I would love to make a documentary of this. I had made all these kind of serious political documentaries and I wanted to do something more fun. I really knew nothing about Bettie, except her image was familiar. Once I looked at the book, I knew it would make a good documentary without really know anything about her story. I arranged to meet her for lunch and we became friends. She would regale me with these stories and it was all just great fun to her. So she agreed to let me do this film of her life and there was almost nobody in the last twenty years of her life that actually talked to her face to face.
Because she was a recluse. She liked the fact that she had fans but she wanted to be remembered for how she was in her photographs. She could not understand why people were still interested in her. She wanted to live her life quietly and she didn’t want to have to deal with people. She and I would go out to lunch in public and nobody would recognize her.
Could she have passed on her knowledge to other performers in some way or did she not want to do that?
She didn’t view herself as possessing any special knowledge. She could tell you in detail all these stories of things that happened and what she did from her point of view. She had a good memory, but the concept of teaching what she did to anyone else probably wouldn’t have occurred to her. If you had asked her, she wouldn’t have known what to do.
So Bettie Page was a feminist icon, ahead of her time. She didn’t really care what anybody thought did she?
No and she didn’t realize that she “doing anything”. In other words, she was just being herself. She was a force of nature with no self-awareness. It wasn’t like she was setting out to make some statement or to be some kind of a role model. She was only working on a job and having fun doing it and that’s all that was to her.
Was she surprised when she was arrested and by the congressional hearings and senate committees?
Not only was she surprised, but also she was completely outraged that they would charge her with indecent exposure. She said: “I was not indecent” and refused to plead guilty to that charge. If she had have just plead guilty, everybody would have been able to go home; but there were photographers covering the trial who had been taking pictures of nude women but telling their wives that they were out fishing. They wanted to get out of there, but she took a stand and they ended up dropping that charge. One of the photographers covering the trial said she had more courage than twenty photographers.
Did she realize that she was way ahead of her time? I mean she must have known what the law was. She must have been aware of the very conservative values of the people around her.
I don’t think she paid any attention to it or knew much about it. I don’t think until she was arrested and charged with indecent exposure that she really thought that much about problems with nudity in an open field, on a farm: that was so natural to her. She couldn’t understand why people thought that was a problem. Once she had realized that people did consider it a problem she started to be a little more careful I think.
So she was a free spirit then?
She was such a free spirit: a force of nature that didn’t stop to think about what she was doing.
I’d like to have that kind of attitude.
It’s also what comes through in the photographs. She wasn’t trying to create something or put on something. She was, I think, the number one actress in terms of still photography.
Why is that? Because she’s a natural?
Well, yes, she is a natural but she also worked really hard at it from a very young age. And, she used to study her photographs to find out how to be better. She did her own hair and make-up and even, unawares, directed a lot of the photography.
She had a good idea of her own art?
It was all done without calculation. It was just who she was, which was the amazing thing about her and the unique spirit you get in her photographs.
How long did you know her for? I know she died in 2008.
I first met her in 1996. I’ve done a number of interviews with her over the years and the last time I saw her was in the hospital a week before she died.
You knew nothing about burlesque before you met Bettie. How do you feel about burlesque now after having known her?
I don’t know how big the burlesque movement was back on 1996. I only discovered this kind of neo-burlesque thing since I began to know Bettie and make this movie. In fact, I didn’t understand for a good while that Bettie’s fans were these young women who found their sexual identity from Bettie.
I think that’s part of burlesque as a whole, you know.
Exactly. Anyhow, I’m a big fan of burlesque now. I have had some burlesque girls who have volunteered on the film. I have had one burlesque troupe show the trailer during their tour.
Bettie has launched a thousand looks, hasn’t she?
Yes. Tempest Storm was at the premiere and there’s a clip of Tempest Storm and Bettie together in my film. There were a lot of burlesque dancers at the premiere of my movie. Some of the burlesque women that I worked with and got to know very well have gone on to very lucrative careers as Bettie Page models for Bettie Page lingerie.
Is Bettie Page lingerie a huge business?
Yes. Bettie Page clothing did ten million dollars in business last year. Then there’s the Bettie Page licensing that made six million dollars last year. She was one of the top incoming-earning dead celebrities tied with George Harrison and Andy Warhol. She was named by Men’s Health as one of the hottest women of all time. Time Magazine recently named her as one of the 100 people most influential in fashion. There have been French fashion designers who have said that they modeled their designs on Bettie Page.
Do you think that’s because of the rise of burlesque in the last ten years? Burlesque is becoming mainstream and quite fashionable so people want to dress like that, perhaps.
Well, yes I think dressing up and having fun: that’s part of burlesque. The whole retro theme is all an attempt to have fun and style. To me, what you’ve got going on in larger society is so stultifying. Burlesque is an outlet for people to have fun and be creative. It’s worthwhile, fun self-expression.