“Bettie Page Reveals All” contains many disclosures, some of them strange, some terribly sad. But one of the weirdest is surely the description of a “Camera Club” in New York in the late 1940s and early ’50s, shutterbugs who trooped out of town every weekend with a handful of models to take pinup photos.
Such pictures, their subjects partially clad or entirely barenekkid, might be sold by mail order or to magazines like Wink, or Cavalier — you know, for discriminating readers.
Some of these (apparently docile) smut-purveyors are still around; interviewed for this documentary, they suggest the kinds of bottom-feeding oddballs from Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” but without the florid personalities.
The mind boggles at the thought of these blandly organized jaunts and the mixture of tawdriness and innocence they conjure up.
At the center of many of the photographs was Bettie Page, an unusually expressive model who was reasonably well-known on the underground nudie circuit in the 1950s but became a major cult icon beginning in the 1980s.
This is her story, and thankfully director Mark Mori has audiotape of Page recalling her life to string together the movie’s narrative (and its ample full-frontal photos and film clips).
We hear from a few others — the photographers, one of Page’s ex-husbands, and the inevitable Hugh Hefner — but the best of the film is Bettie Page’s matter-of-fact voice, huskily spinning her tale.
The general aura that surrounds Page’s resurgent popularity emphasizes the campy, cheerful, sex-positive nature of her image, but the story isn’t a happy one. Molested as a child by her father and sexually assaulted as an adult, Page soldiered on through bad marriages and a few life-threatening incidents.
She found God and quit the pinup business in the ’50s, spiraling into mental instability in middle age. Page says she enjoyed posing for pictures, even the bondage and spanking films made by the notorious Irving Klaw (a perfectly nice and mild fellow, according to Bettie).
As full of voyeuristic hot air as the film’s commentators are, it is true that Page’s spark leaps out of her photographs — she’s visibly thriving under the validation and reward she appears to be getting from the camera (So many good actors have that hunger to be looked at).
You can’t help wondering where that need came from, which is the troubling bass line beneath the film.
However much her admirers coo about the delight or empowerment that comes from those vintage pix, and however much we might appreciate the adults-only arrow aimed at the heart of the Eisenhower-era façade of respectability, the overall takeaway from “Bettie Page Reveals All” is sadness — and a lingering unease about the appetite that needs to feed on the flesh of ambivalent icons.
“Bettie Page Reveals All” 2½ stars
Documentary bio of the cult nudie pin-up icon, who narrates her own tale in a husky, matter-of-fact voice. It wasn’t a happy life for Bettie Page, which makes her cheerful, undeniably charismatic 1950s photos all the more puzzling — despite all the gush from her fans, there’s something sad about the story.
Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown.