Produced & Directed by Mark Mori
Written by Douglas Miller
Released by Music Box Films
USA. 101 min. Rated R
Narrated by Bettie Page

The black bangs, the sweetly naughty come hither look, the mind-boggling curves. Bettie Page is arguably the most iconic pinup model of all time, with her alluring image gracing everything from T-shirts and mugs to body parts (in the form of tattoos). Though she left an indelible mark upon American pop culture, becoming a legendary sex symbol before hastily exiting the scene toward the end of the 1950s—and leaving fans yearning for more, more, more—few know the real Bettie Page. Filmmaker Mark Mori here gives Page her own Gypsy Rose Lee moment—the chance to relate her story in her own words. While Mori began interviewing Page (deceased since 2008), and others, in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until years later that the project took shape.

Speaking with a thick Southern drawl, Page discusses her life, beginning with her difficult childhood in Tennessee (her mother never wanted her, and her father molested her and her sisters) and her abusive first marriage, before going into her first forays into modeling. She posed in the nude for amateur camera clubs and scantily clad for men’s magazines such as Wink and Titter. Though Page herself never appears on screen as she narrates, her image dominates the documentary, through photographs, cartoons, paintings, and film clips.

Interspersed throughout are interviews with those who worked with Page, such as Florida-based photographer Bunny Yeager and Paula Klaw, who, with her brother, Irving, captured Page on film for paying customers who made specific requests that ranged from whips and ball gags to (wildest of all) a pony outfit. Those who knew and admired her, like Playboy founder Hugh Hefner (who met Page later in life and helped her regain control of her image) and Steve Brewster (founder of the Bettie Scouts of America fan club), also appear.

Page’s open attitude to posing and the uninhibited delight with which she practiced her craft—whether sporting bikinis or bondage gear—made her a joy to work with, but put her at odds with the repressed mind-set of the 1950s (touched upon through footage of the federal hearings against pornography, which led to the end of the Klaws’ business and the constant threat of arrest that photographers and models faced when doing outdoor shoots). Yeager and Klaw both sing Page’s praises, extolling her comfort with her body, her winsome personality, and the sensuality she exuded at now legendary shoots such as the “Jungle Girl” session (where Page, wearing a leopard print one piece, poses with cheetahs).

Though the film addresses Page’s post-modeling life (she found religion and was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic), this is for the most part a love letter to the voluptuous vixen, infused with the campy, faux-sleazy spirit of her famous photos. Mori often pairs Page’s narration with over-the-top visuals (a description of a lecherous Hollywood producer trying to convince her to have dinner with him is shown alongside Tex Avery’s eye-popping, leering Big Bad Wolf), and the accompanying music is pure B movie. The dark sides of Page’s life are acknowledged, but what is most noteworthy here is the giddy sense of glee that she and her image engender in her followers, who are downright worshipful as they discuss not only her body but also the mixture of unpretentious sweetness, sultry sexuality, and empowerment that make her so captivating, to men and women alike, to this day.

The 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page (a clip of which is shown here and which Page herself strongly disliked) portrays Page as more of a doe-eyed naïf romping innocently through a sort of cheesecake Garden of Eden, but here viewers get a much more realistic depiction. Page’s matter-of-fact narration, which encompasses the occasional frank reference to her sex life and her appreciation of her body and its effect on men, gives her an arch, knowing quality. She is never boastful or arrogant and even seems surprised that, so many years later, she remains such a beloved phenomenon. Mori not only emphasizes Page’s beauty but also the influence she left behind, everything from haircuts to music (Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me?” video echoes Page’s performance in Teasarama) to attitude (many young women dub her a feminist role model). This bubbly and lighthearted film is an affectionate and nostalgia-streaked tribute.