Bettie Page was the most popular bondage model in the world when she got an unusual request that foreshadowed the end of her career.
Working for 1950s New York erotica legend Irving Klaw, Page had injured a knee during a girl-on-girl wrestling match, and a surgeon suggested the damage was too severe to continue modeling. Recovering in bed, she got a reprieve.
“I heard a voice: ‘Bettie, you can straighten it out, you know. Just try it,’” Page recalls. “I knew it was the voice of God.”
She kept modeling, but within 18 months, she had disappeared from public view. She remained out of sight for nearly 40 years as the cult of Bettie Page raged without her.
Filmmaker Mark Mori has long been fascinated by grim subjects, his documentaries — including two nominated for Academy Awards — navigating bleak lives filled with injustice, abuse, exploitation and violence. The mysterious world of Bettie Page had all those elements, but something more irresistible: pure, unbridled joy.
“With the level of suffering she went through, to be able to overcome that and maintain this joyousness, even after all the things that happened, was remarkable,” says Mori, director of “Bettie Page Reveals All,” opening Dec. 6 at Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Theatre.
Or as an amateur photographer, recalling pictures he took of an unknown Page in the early ’50s, puts it in the movie: “She smiled with her whole body.”
Page, who walked away from modeling at the height of her fame in 1957, was 72 and living in a state-run group home in a remote suburb of Los Angeles when Mori met her in 1996. Page’s living situation was a legacy of a mental breakdown that began with an early-‘70s stint in a psychiatric ward at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and continued with her incarceration in a California mental hospital for most of the 1980s.
“Bettie Page Reveals All” is carried by excerpts of three two-hour audio recordings Mori made of Page in 1996 and 1998, about 10 years before she died. The recordings were originally intended as background information, but Mori was unable to convince Page to go in front of a camera.
“She was still Bettie. It was unmistakable,” Mori says of their first meeting. "She still had the bangs, but they were gray, and her face was fuller. She was gorgeous, but it didn’t matter. I think she just didn’t like the way she looked.”
But without the visual transition between Page then and now to distract the audience, her voiceover memories, coated in a syrupy Tennessee drawl, become the poignant star of the film.
A parade of personal photographs, famous pinup shots, amateur images, 16-mm bondage shorts and newsreel footage of the "creeps" of the obscenity-obsessed Kefauver Committee, are a backdrop for Page’s candid memories. Tales of pedophilia, rape and domestic violence, recounted with a weary matter-of-factness, alternate with bright and funny recollections of her cutting her iconic bangs, visiting Florida, finding her faith and creating the provocative images that startled repressive 1950s sensibilities and continue to influence generations of spirited young women.
“I had no bad feelings about posing nude,” Page says, laughing. “I made more money in two hours than I made all week as a secretary. ... I was just doing my job, and had fun doing it.”
Among the celebrities offering their appreciation are Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner, burlesque star Dita Von Teese and trailblazing Miami pinup photographer Bunny Yeager, who took many of Page’s best-known pictures, including a famous series of Page with two live cheetahs in Boca Raton’s Africa USA theme park. The late Dave Stevens, the comic-book artist whose depiction of Page in “The Rocketeer” series helped spur interest in her, also appears.
Then, there is Brigadier Gen. Charles West, an adviser to President Richard Nixon, who took a “notorious” set of pictures of Page. In a palpably affectionate voiceover while the pictures are displayed, West recalls Page’s body as “absolutely without blemish. Everything exactly right and in proportion … She was just about the perfect woman. My memories of Betts are ever present.”
This week Mori attended a Greenwich Village screening of “Bettie Page Reveals All,” with many young women in the audience.
“We had all these roller derby girls there, I don’t know why. And they came up and they were profusely thanking me for making the movie,” Mori says. “She’s been an abstraction for so long, but now they see the real person. These young women feel an even stronger emotional connection after seeing the story, and what she went through.”
IF YOU GO
“Bettie Page Reveals All” will screen Friday, Dec. 6, at the Gateway Theatre, 1820 E Sunrise Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-763-7994 or go to TheGatewayTheatre.com.