Judge Michael Nazarewycz learned the hard way that first rule of Camera Club is never say "Cheese!" in Camera Club.
Jet Black Bangs! Sizzling Scandals! Immortal Icon!
If there's one thing we love to do as a society, it's buy stuff tattooed with pictures of (usually dead) famous people. In my years as a retail video store clerk in the early 1990s we sold mountains of posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, action figures, bric-a-brac, and whatnot emblazoned with images of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and so on. It didn't stop with actual people, either. The subject of the random limited edition lunch box was, at times, animated; short of the collected Warner Bros. characters, Betty Boop was probably the most iconic. And "iconic" seems to be the key term here, because another subject of many a tchotchke was Bettie Page. At the time (read: pre-internet), not much was commonly known about the iconic pinup other than she was an iconic pinup (who looked good on tchotchkes and had a thing for fetish). Since then, though, much has been made about Page and her life, and among other works—both documentary and dramatization—is this offering, which tells her story from her side.
Facts of the Case
From 1950-1957, Bettie Page was the most famous and most successful pinup and fetish model in the world. But no sooner had she made it to the top…she disappeared. As years became decades, speculation became rumor, with the most fearful guess being that she had died and no one would ever know for sure. Then in the 1990s, she was "found" and gently convinced to emerge from reclusion. This delighted the millions of fans who idolize her and pay her homage with everything from imitation and memorabilia to artwork on paper, canvas, and skin.
Bettie Page Reveals All! is the story not just of the model's career, disappearance, and re-emergence; it is the story of her life, from her childhood to her passing, and it is mostly told by Page herself.
While there were many points of interest in Bettie Page Reveals All!, the biggest stunner for me is that the model's professional career lasted only seven years. Given how great and sustained her popularity has been—when people thought she was dead AND after she actually died in 2008—and given how ubiquitous she is in pop-culture to this day, I would have put her career at three times that length, easy.
Beyond specific points of interest, the documentary struggles some. Using Page's own words and voice, director Mark Mori (Building Bombs) crafts a first act tale of his subject's pre-celeb life—going all the way back to her childhood—as one of constant victimization. She was sexually abused by her father (with jaw-dropping details on him). She was later sent to an orphanage. She failed a screen test at 20th Century Fox (which she attributes to her having rebuffed the advances of someone from the studio). Her first husband was jealous and violent and they divorced. She was seduced by a man and made to have sex with him and four of his friends. A "true love" turned out to be married. She was rejected by the Ford Modeling Agency because of her body (they said she was too "hippy"). It isn't that any of this strains credulity, and each point—as well as the whole story—is worthy of sympathy. It's just that it feels like a highlight reel of sorrow. She does mention bright spots, like how her first boyfriend turned her on to sex and how much she genuinely enjoyed it (laying the groundwork for her future endeavors), and how much she liked going dancing. However, the story of the first 25-ish years feels like a huge sympathy-grab. It also belies the tone of her narration, which never sounds like she is looking for pity.
What follows is the strongest part of the story: Bettie's seven-year moon-shot of a career. This second act is worth the price of admission. It tells Page's career story primarily in her voice, with an excellent supporting tale told from the perspectives of those who were influential to her at that time. Those people include Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who made Page Miss January 1955; Paula Klaw, who, with her brother and co-fetish-filmmaker Irving, put Page on the national map; professional pinup photographer Bunny Yeager; and a few amateur photographers who helped launch Page's success with their Camera Clubs. This section is also crammed with stills, candids, and videos of the model in b&w and color, in every imaginable state of undress, in some very compromising positions (unbound and bound), and alone or with others. This is an amazing collection of imagery, and no matter how ubiquitous Page's photos have been over the last six decades, there are so many pictures I had never seen before, including some that have never been published.
The third act cleverly follows Page's post-career disappearance and emergence via two narratives: her own and one shared by fans, historians, experts, and the like.
The theme of being victimized carries throughout the second and third acts; including more failed relationships, underhanded business dealings, harassment—by government, law enforcement, and the church—and considerable medical issues. While these tales are not as dominant as they are in the first act (because there is so much more material to fill the screen later in the film), they still feel like an effort by Mori to generate as much sympathy for Page as possible, especially since no direct cause-and-effect (victimization-to-career) connection is made; it is at best implied, but usually inferred. Ultimately, I never felt that Page overcame her struggles to succeed; I always felt that success and strife existed separately for her.
To Page's great, great credit, she owns every action she ever took and does so without regret (save for one instance) or remorse. Her tone is refreshingly full of pride when she (routinely) speaks about her enjoyment of sex, how comfortable she was being nude before a camera (and, by extension, in front of strangers), and what she considered acting when her work delved into areas of wrestling with other women, bondage, and other S&M-related fetishes. To her supporters' credit, they love her without prejudice—from Hefner and fellow old-school bombshell Mamie Van Doren to current pinup queen Dita Von Teese and the other celebrities and scores of nameless fans who appear in the film.
Bettie Page Reveals All's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is all over the place. Interviews with people who knew and/or are experts on Page, as well as footage from an art exhibit and party, have very soft edges and lack any real pop in their color. Conversely, there are full-color comic book panels that appear from time to time that are as sharp and vivid as you will find on any DVD. The quality of the archival footage presentation widely varies depending on the quality of the source, with images ranging from sharp black-and-whites to one brief cartoon clip that is pixelated due to such low resolution. As for the still photos of Page that appear throughout the film, most are superb, whether in color or black-and-white. The standout photos are those taken during her first shoot with Bunny Yeager. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is no different in terms of consistency. There are numerous audio sources of wide-ranging quality, including a new music track, that present uneven output levels. (NOTE: There is a Blu-ray release of this DVD that was not available for review.)
There are numerous extras on the DVD and they are meaty. My only complaint is that they can border on repetitive.
• Filth and Obscenity!: A Bettie Page Reveals All Bonus Reel—This is a 9-minute, hastily-assembled collection of clips. They include (now-humorous) ultra-conservative clips from the '50s and '60s decrying the horrors of perversion, as well as brief interview segments with Hugh Hefner and others discussing how pornography was viewed. The latter appears to have been culled from things left out of the film.
• The Early Years: Audio Interview with Bettie—This is a 16-minute slideshow of stills from Page's youth and career, over which plays an interview with Page.
• Unleashed Bettie and Paula Klaw Phone Call—This is a 13-minute conversation between the two women, with the camera focused on Klaw for the conversation's duration.
• Irving Klaw's Wiggle Movies—Restored!—This is the gem of the set. It is a 25-minute collection of Wiggle Movies—black and white shorts of Page that have been restored and are now set to new musical recordings (mostly rockabilly anthems to Page). I could do without the music, but the shorts are a great (albeit somewhat repetitive) nostalgic trip. The set includes: Dance of Passion, Betty Page's New High Heel Tease, Waltzing in Satin Scanties, Dominant Betty Dances With Her Whip, Dream Dance by Betty, Betty's Enchanting Dance, Return of Teaser Girl, Betty's Exotic Dance in High Heels.
• "Bettie Page" by Buzz Campbell—This is a 3-minute music video comprised of Campbell's rockabilly ode to Page and a series of clips that look suspiciously like they were pulled from the Wiggle Movies.
• Bettie's Funeral—It's three minutes of, well, Page's funeral. It includes snippets of eulogies as more notorious attendees are name-checked via chyron. And it's creepy.
• Bettie's Exclusive Pin-Up Gallery—This is a collection of 71 images of Page that didn't make the film but which the editors still thought warranted showing. There is no slideshow functionality; you must click NEXT 71 times.
• Theatrical Trailer
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's greatest hook is also its greatest curse. Page's narration (which is, ostensibly, a recitation of her stream-of-consciousness recollection that the film is built around, not vice versa) gives her story a great sense of intimacy. For the most part it works well, until those huge sections in the second act where Page is recounting ribald tales while saucy images of her appear onscreen. Page is telling the tale of her wild youth with the voice of an elderly woman. Grandma is narrating her own dirty picture collage, which at times is unsettling.
While the run time is a little long for the story being told, and while the presentation of that story is a little problematic, there is enough great raw material here—both in the film and within the extras—to make this a quality rental for someone looking to understand what all of the Page hubbub is about. For anyone who is a fan of Page or the areas of pinups, pinup art, or fetish, Bettie Page Reveals All! is worthy addition to an existing collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
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