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The Wonderfully Wicked Bettie Page
  • November 21, 2013 : 15:11
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I’ve had a giant Bettie Page photo hanging on my wall since college. It was handed down to me from my older sister, who had it on her wall before I did. As much as I loved Page’s iconic beauty, I didn’t really know much about the black-haired bombshell at first. Only that she had fierce bangs, a killer rack and she handled her whip delicately. Eventually I found out that she was shot by Playboy’s photographer Bunny Yeager. And then I started to dig and I learned more about Bettie Page’s colorful life.

Bettie Page married Billy, her high school sweetheart, before he was drafted into the navy in World War II. Page moved all over America searching for steady employment, eventually finding her way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti for four months, where she almost became the secretary to the ambassador to the U.S. Page fell in love with a Haitian man but was surprised to discover he had a pregnant wife on the other end of the island.

Page eventually divorced Billy and packed her bags for New York City in hopes of becoming a star. She was quickly discovered by a policeman and amateur photographer. Back then, “camera clubs” were highly popular in the underground to evade laws against nude photos. “I bet there’s thousands of photos of Bettie out there for that reason,” says Mark Mori, a renowned documentary filmmaker whose Bettie Page documentary Bettie Page Reveals All debuts in select New York theaters tomorrow. “We’re going to be seeing a lot of Bettie Page photos pop up for a long time.”

After the release of the 1996 book Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, her revival went into full swing but Bettie was nowhere to be found. She was a recluse from her newfound fame and seemed to want to keep it that way. “When I saw Bettie’s image in that book for the first time I thought, ‘Wow, I know that face, I’ve seen that!’ but I didn’t know the name and I didn’t know the story,” explains Mori. “But now she’s just everywhere in the culture and people realized it after the book. Not long after I was able to get introduced to her and started the documentary at that point.”

Mark Mori’s name may sound familiar to die-hard Bettie Page fans. He’d been working on a feature film based on Page prior to The Notorious Bettie Page feature film of 2005. “I had Martin Scorsese attached to direct and Liv Tyler to play Bettie. When it didn’t work out, I went back to the documentary.”

There are a lot of Page books and films out there, but it’s safe to say Mori’s will go down in history as the be-all and end-all, the Holy Bible of all things Page. Not only did Mori know Bettie personally, Page herself narrates the film almost in its entirety to settle the lore around her pinup/BDSM queen image once and for all. “Some people thought that she must be into all of that as well, which she wasn’t necessarily,” Mori tells me. “Because she was having such a good time, people figured that’s what she really does in her private life.”

While the spunk and charisma you see in her eyes carried over to her real life, she’d leave the rest behind once she peeled off her boudoir attire (in the early days, Page made most of her own lingerie), even those where she’s depicted hogtied and gagged on a bedroom floor. “She really didn’t think a lot about it. It was something she did. It was a job that she got paid for,” explains Mori. “She was told that she was supposed to do it and she did it. It’s not to say that she had any negative judgment about it; it was a way for her to make a living,” he says.

While Page was known to pose nude, she was adamant about not appearing in sexually explicit situations. In a 1998 interview for NashvilleCitySearch, Page spoke about refusing to do strip sets but being coerced into doing a few sleazy shots after having a few glasses of sweet May wine. Those images were eventually leaked to the public. In that same interview she admitted to throwing out all of her net stockings and bikinis in January of 1959 after becoming a Christian, items she eventually came to regret parting with.

She was married a number of times, both during her career and afterwards, but in her last years decided that she had had it with men. After the end of her modeling career she began working for various Christian organizations, even attempting to become a Christian missionary in Africa. She was turned down for being a divorcée. After the end of yet another tempestuous marriage, she moved to Southern California. In 1979 she had a nervous breakdown and was sent to the state hospital after being diagnosed with acute schizophrenia.

I wondered if it was hard for Mori to speak to her about her mental health. “She didn’t volunteer that [information] to anybody, including me, when I first met her. But later, after the Richard Foster book was released and it exposed that, then she had me interview her extensively about it. She talked about it intimately. You will hear some of it in the film.”

Then the revival slowly began building, to the point where she has become the staple in feminine, fashion and pinup culture she is today. “She couldn’t understand that at all,” explains Mori, “she just couldn’t wrap her mind around it.”

But while people were profiting from the retro throwback of Bettie’s personal style, she wasn’t receiving a cent for it.

Enter Hugh Hefner. “Obviously, she was an important early Playboy centerfold and a part of the sexual revolution and Hefner was a champion of hers in her later years,” says Mori. “[Hefner] got her into a position where she could benefit financially from what was going on. I know that he was very fond of her and wanted to see her taken care of. Hefner ultimately arranged for her to get an agent to begin corralling the money that was being made from her image.”

Although Bettie mania was in full swing in the ’90s, it took a while for her to see any money. In a phone interview with Entertainment Tonight, Page admitted to living in a group home, stating famously that she was “penniless and infamous.” As she began to age, Bettie was secretive about her aging figure, refusing to appear in pictures and television interviews due to concerns over her weight. One photo appeared in Playboy in August of 2003, but not much else has surfaced. In the end, she wanted to be remembered as she was, not as she ultimately became. On December 11 2008, after falling into a severe coma, Page was pulled off life support.

“Why do I think she’s still an icon? I think there are several reasons. The Paris and Milan fashion designers like Bettie because of her flair, her style, her fun with dressing up. I think young women are attracted to her because the dominant culture puts forward this unattainable notion of beauty. From Madison Avenue to supermodels.… It does something negative to women to think that that’s what they have to do to be attractive or sexy, and somehow Bettie allows them to access their own confidence in their sexuality,” says Mori.

“But for me? I think it’s that sparkle in her eye that you see in the photographs, that personality. I mean, getting to know that personality and finding out, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on in the pictures, that’s who she is!’ It was really amazing to get that in the flesh.”

Mark Mori’s documentary Bettie Page Reveals All opens in New York City at the Village East Theater on November 22 and at the Nuart Theater in L.A. Get more opening dates and see more photos at bettiepagemovie.com.

read more: entertainment, girls, Celebrities, playmates, interview

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