by Joanelle Mulrain
Bettie Page, the black-banged pin-up icon of the 50s whose image adorned the sides of Korean War-era bomber once revealed, “I just love to take air baths. Just get naked and dance around for 20 minutes. It’s wonderful!”
Jacksonville native, Mark Mori is nationally recognized as a cutting-edge documentary filmmaker whose credits include Building Bombs, Academy Award nominee for Best Feature Documentary in 1990, and Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, Documentary Short Academy Award nominee in 1993. He also received an Emmy Award in 2000 for the television documentary special Kent State: The Day the War Came Home.
Mori is particularly excited about his newly finished documentary project Bettie Page Reveals All. It’s the exclusive, authorized biography about how a modern Athénaïs, an icon of beauty and sexuality, could totally vanish for decades only to re-emerge into a world filled with her likeness. Was she crazy? On the run? Forced out by overzealous government hearings? Ashamed or converted?
In a recent interview, Mark explained his departure from rather stark subject matter like Kent State and nuclear bomb factories: “This project is really something good, tells a good story and is more commercial.” What brought about this change of pace for Mori? “Lunch with an attorney,” Mark answered with a laugh. “Bettie and I shared the same entertainment lawyer; he showed me a pre-publication version of her book, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, and he set up a meeting.” That was the beginning of a 12-year friendship and the launch of Bettie Page Reveals All.
Bettie Mae Page hailed from Tennessee in an era of moral conservatism and found herself, along with another notable full-figured beauty, Marilyn Monroe, thrust into the spotlight as early Playboy Magazine centerfolds who sparked a revolution toward a more progressively minded nation.
Always on the cutting edge, Page designed most of her own costumes including the bullet cone bra now sported by Madonna and Lady Ga Ga. She was a creator and innovator with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Peabody College, but the 9 to 5 routine was not for this energetic wildcat. In a 1998 interview with Playboy, she commented on her career: “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”
Bettie went on to be adored as the “queen of the pin-ups” and appeared on television during the early days of the Jackie Gleason Show. Her famous bondage photos landed her before the US Senate Special Committee to Investigate Pornography and Juvenile Delinquency – the 1955 Kefauver hearings. In her defense, Page was never a porn star as we know them today, but the Committee did seize the negatives of her work and made it illegal to reproduce them.
Soon after that Bettie vanished from the spotlight. On New Year’s eve 1958, while visiting Key West, Bettie experienced a conversion to Christianity and later went on to work full time for Billy Graham’s Crusades.
A cult following, of which she was unaware, was built around her during the 1980s. This renewed attention was focused on her pinup and lingerie modeling and she regained a certain public redemption and popular status as an icon of erotica from a bygone era. This attention also raised the question among her new fans of what happened to her after the 1950s. The 1990s edition of the popular Book of Lists included Page in a list of once-famous celebrities who had seemingly vanished from the public eye.
“At my first meeting with Bettie,” Mori explained, “she looked great, and what an upbeat, fun personality. She was totally unaware of her popularity and said she never did it on purpose.”
“I recorded a lengthy interview of several hours with Bettie in 1996 and another one in 1999. The last time I saw her was in the hospital in Los Angeles in early December 2008, about a week before she died.”
As with any documentary filmmaking, a lot of research was required. Mori says, “She was absolutely wonderful to work with, and her narration gives the film such authenticity.” Mark poured over thousands of images and hours of film footage. An amazing journey took Mori from the early days of Bettie posing on the pages of camera-club magazines like Wink, Titter and Eyeful – forerunners of Heffner’s Playboy, all the way through to Bettie’s funeral in 2008. Bettie Page was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, the final resting place of many Hollywood icons such as Bettie’s pin-up blonde counterpart, Marilyn.