Late in his biographical documentary Bettie Page Reveals All, director Mark Mori includes an anecdote a friend of Bettie Page’s recounts about Page’s experience watching Mary Harron’s 2006 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, during which she yelled at the film to stop lying about her life. In that light, Mori’s film could be seen as a feature-length riposte to the oversimplifications and one-note caricatures of Harron’s film, especially with its trump card: the testimony of the pinup icon herself, heard but not seen, setting the record straight about her life—especially the years after she dropped out of modeling in the middle of the 1950s—just before she died in 2008.
Much of what Page recounts in Mori’s film will probably be familiar to Page devotees, not just as a result of Harron’s film, but through an official 1996 biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, and various other television appearances she made in the last decade of her life. And, as was the custom in those later appearances, Page doesn’t appear on camera, narrating her life story simply through voiceover. If Bettie Page Reveals All does in fact offer anything especially revelatory, it allows us to get a fuller glimpse of the human being behind the racy nudie photographs and 16mm films—and the film suggests that the person and her projected persona may not have been as far apart as some might initially presume. Close to the end of her life, Page seemed to have maintained much the same sunny disposition she exuded in her photos, even when she talks about her parental abuse and neglect growing up in Nashville; her run-ins with the law, whether with police officers or with Tennessee representative Estes Kefauver; or her struggles with mental illness later in her life. She relays it all with a disarming lack of sentimentality, an air of mature experience that somehow never comes across as bitter or world-weary. Her openness to life’s strange twists and turns remained vibrant until the end.
Such innocence, of course, is partly what attracted many to Page’s photos and films; they were “naughty” in ways that felt genuinely liberating rather than merely sordid. Even if Mori goes a bit overboard in hammering home his appreciation of Page’s significance, allowing the film to occasionally lapse into repetitiveness, he at least offers enough useful critical, sociological, and historical context—a sense of the conformity-minded environment of the 1950s that Page was, in her own way, working against—to add some depth to the hagiography.
Mori also tries to liven up his panoply of talking heads by attempting to cinematically reflect Page’s game-for-anything mindset. On this front, however, he’s rather less successful. Aside from some of the desperately cutesy stock footage he deploys in order to illustrate Page’s voiceover narration, the biggest culprit is Gary Guttman’s score, which, in its use of artificial-sounding instruments and excessive underlining of emotional high points, adds, however unintentionally, notes of snarky irony that are at fundamental odds with Mori’s seemingly sincere reverence for his subject. (If anything, Guttman’s score might seem more appropriate for something like The Notorious Bettie Page.) Still, considering the way Guttman’s musical accompaniment takes the edge off even the most seemingly tragic of developments in Page’s personal life, maybe the matter-of-fact Page herself wouldn’t have had it any other way.