Here at Luna Luna, you might say that Bettie Page is our spirit animal. Brimming with sexual energy, flaunting her independence, and refusing to adhere to the cultural norms of the 1950s, all while wearing as little as possible, Page blazed a trail of unrepentant awesomeness and became an icon of sex-positive, body-positive feminism. In a new documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All, Bettie Page narrates the story of her life in a series of interviews with Academy Award–nominated director Mark Mori.
Bettie Page Reveals All is opening its theatrical run this Friday at the Village East Cinema in New York, so of course Luna Luna got in touch with Mori for a little chat about our idol.
Hi, Mark! Thank you so much for your time. I’m sure you’re very busy this week, leading up to the theatrical rollout of the film.
I do some work with Cinekink here in New York, and I know the movie played at this year’s festival, in 2013. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t make it to see it, so I’m very excited that it will be in theaters!
Yes, it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Cinekink.
Yes! Congratulations! New York is getting the first theatrical release this Friday, and then it’s opening up in a bunch of other places from there?
Yeah, it will be opening the following week, Friday, November 29, at the NuArt in LA, which is a Landmark theater. I’ll be there for that and we’ll be doing a retro style contest and a burlesque show in connection with that. And there’s a little store next door called Cinefile where I’ll be signing posters after the screening. Also that same day it opens in Irvine, down in Orange County at the Regal Westpark. And then it opens more widely around the country the following week, December 6, in Chicago, San Francisco, and many other theaters around the country. People can go to BettiePageMovie.com to find out the theaters where it’s screening. It’s at over forty theaters at this point.
That’s great! It will be out around the holidays, so people can go see it with their families at Christmas!
Actually it opens in Atlanta on Christmas day!
Perfect! So, can you give me your elevator pitch for this film? What’s the essence, the biggest draw, for this movie?
Well, it reveals the mystery from Bettie herself of what happened to her after she disappeared [after her retirement in the late fifties]. But even more importantly, I think, it answers the question: Why Bettie Page? What is it about Bettie Page that’s so compelling that these photographs that were taken sixty years ago have made her such an international figure, an influence in fashion and culture, so popular among young women? I mean, that’s the question the film answers.
And that is actually exactly what I wanted to ask you. I’m sure that different people have different answers to the question of why she is special, but for you, as someone who knows her work and who knew her personally later in her life, what do you think it is about her that made her such an icon?
Well, I think it’s Bettie herself. Bettie is kind of this force of nature. She’s completely unconscious and unwitting about what she does, but it’s just who she is. It’s all natural to her. She has this joyous, unaffected approach. She’s the greatest model of still photography that’s ever come along. Just the innocence and the embrace of her female sexuality that you get in these photographs is just… nobody else even comes close to that.
You’re right. I think about some of the photos I’ve seen of her, and she always does have this very innocent, sort of joyous look on her face, even when she’s doing the least innocent things.
Even while she being a dominatrix or has a ball gag in her mouth, she’s having fun with it. See, she made sexuality accessible to people in the fifties when she was doing this. This was considered pornography, really.
Yeah. She was involved in all sorts of government attempts to censor her work, particularly the bondage photos, correct?
She went to court and refused to let herself be censored. But at the same time, you say you don’t think she saw herself as political. Do you think that those made her aware of the political importance of what she was doing?
No, I don’t think so. She just did what she did without thinking much about it. Her only concern about the persecution was how it would negatively affect her modeling career. She didn’t think about it as political. She was an independent woman who was owning her sexuality, but she did that naturally. She didn’t even think about the fact that that’s what she was doing. And when she took a stand and refused to testify, and when she refused to plead guilty to indecent exposure, there was no politics about it for her. She was just who she was, and she did that sort of thing without even thinking about it.
Were you a fan of her work when you were younger?
No, actually. I didn’t know who she was. And I only discovered who she was when I saw a pre-publication copy of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend. I recognized her face. Her face is really ubiquitous in the culture, but a lot of people don’t realize it. They know her face is familiar, and that’s how I was. And that’s when I connected her name with her face and began to find out about her story. And in making the film, and really discovering who she was, I really just fell in love with her.
So you’re a fan now?
Oh, of course, yes.
Since you came to her work later, I’m interested to know what sort of impact her work has had on you personally.
You know, it’s gotten me to expand myself as a filmmaker, and forced me to think about issues like feminism. I’m a little older. I was there for all of the original battles about feminism, and I supported women’s rights. And there was a really kind of… I didn’t think about it at the time, but there was kind of an anti-sex strain to it, so I was forced to rethink all of that in making this movie. Thinking, “Well, what am I saying about women if I’m doing this movie?” And then I discovered all of these young women who were deriving their confidence in their sexuality through Bettie.
And also in making the film I had done these political films, but this was more cultural and biographical. And so I had to expand my creative palette in order to pull this thing off.
You’ve done a lot of more heavy-hitting political films [Building Bombs, Kent State: The Day the War Came Home), but in a way, right now anything that deals with female sexuality is hugely political, with all the wars going on over women’s bodies.
Well, you could say that. I couldn’t do a film that wasn’t political. But it started out as a biography of Bettie, and then my approach to politics grew out of that. So it’s not an overtly political film, like most of my films about nuclear weapons or the shootings at Kent State or something like that, but obviously it’s very political because it has to do with this woman who’s such an icon and so looked up to by women, and who is such a major cultural force.
Speaking of her cultural force, someone asked me if I could ask why you think her bondage photos are not as well known as her more standard pin-up work.
I think there’s a smaller audience interested in the bondage photos. I mean, the cheesecake pin-up photos—that’s universally appealing. And not everyone necessarily finds the bondage photos appealing. So, yeah I think all that really is, is taste. But she made the bondage acceptable.
That’s what I was thinking! She’s been credited as a force behind the sexual revolution, but it seems like she really brought the idea of bondage and a BDSM sensibility to the masses. Do you think that BDSM became more widely known and practiced after her photos?
Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And there’s a reason why the Bettie Page bondage photos were used at this hearing and not somebody else’s bondage photos. That’s how threatening her persona was, her portrayal of this as fun, with no judgment. And that has to come across to anybody who looks at them. So this was sort of underground fare in the fifties and the early sixties, but then I think even today her bondage photographs still make it ok. If you want to try it out, or you thought you might be into but you weren’t sure, Bettie kind of gives you the blessing to do that.
I think so! And I think that’s what’s often missing from the dialogue about that lifestyle. It’s seen as being based around degradation, but if you look at a Bettie Page photo, she’s smiling, she’s having a fantastic time.
Bettie’s message is—she never says these words—but what it comes across as, is, “Hey, I’m up for anything! Let’s have some fun! Let’s do it!”
That’s huge. That’s game changing. So let’s talk about how you actually got in touch with her. I mean, she came back into the public eye in the early nineties, but she wasn’t exactly giving out interviews all over the place.
She really did not want to meet strangers, or even people like the president of her fan club, Steve Brewster of Bettie Scouts of America. He talked to her on the phone every week for five years before meeting her in person. So she just was not interested in talking to people and meeting people. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time at the right moment in history. If it had been a year or two earlier, or a year or two later, I probably wouldn’t have been able to meet her. But it was just when that book, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, was coming out. My lawyer was representing her and I got introduced to her, and I was able to take her out to lunches and get to know her.
When you were taking her out for lunches, that’s when you recorded most of the interviews?
Well it was during that time period, but I was not recording those in a restaurant, just because of the background noise.
Oh, right. So did you get permission to record, with the intention of making a documentary?
Well, yes. I mean, she signed a contract with me to cooperate with me exclusively on the authorized documentary of her life. The audio recordings were originally research. I just wanted to interview her and get everything down that I could because I couldn’t convince her to go on camera. I was convinced that eventually I would. The audio recordings were not originally intended to be the narration of the film.
Oh, I see. So then she passed away in 2008. I’m assuming that you just didn’t have the time to get around to all that.
Well, yeah. For a while I got distracted by trying to do a feature film on Bettie Page. At one time—this was before The Notorious Bettie Page—Martin Scorsese was going to direct it and Liv Tyler was going to play Bettie Page. This was around 2000. It would have been great if it had happened, but this was one of those Hollywood deals that never happened.
Liv Tyler would have been perfect for that!
Yeah, it’s hard to pull off the real Bettie Page. And I think Liv Tyler is one person who might have been able to do it.
Anyway, so then I came back to it a few years later once I settled on the idea of using the audio recordings as the narration, building the movie around that. And also I decided to develop this take on the fifties. Those are the two things that kind of inspired me to get me back into doing this film and finishing it.
So it’s been a long process then.
Well, you know, these independent films where you’re financing them yourself and you don’t have studio backing… You know, a lot of Bettie Page fans helped finance this film. So it’s been a more involved process.
That’s fantastic. Especially because Bettie Page is this cult figure that for so long has had such a huge fan base, but who was absent from her own cult, I can see this being the perfect kind of thing for crowdfunding.
Exactly. We allowed people—and they can still do it, actually—to get their name in the credits as a supporter of the film for a very modest amount of money. We’ve had Bettie fans from more than thirty countries do that.
Wow! I’m sure that when you were speaking to her, she had an idea of the depth of her fandom. What did she make of all of it?
She didn’t know what to make of it. She was flattered by it, but she could not understand it. But this is part of who Bettie is. She’s not a calculating person. She doesn’t even self-censor. You can kind of tell that from the narration of the film. She just talks very freely about her sex life, everything. So she’s not a kind of self-reflective person, even to the point of not understanding. And she doesn’t have an ego. She doesn’t understand why there’s all this interest in her, and certainly couldn’t understand the political component of it.
That’s just so interesting. She’s such a huge icon, and to not be concerned with oneself as an icon…
I think that’s part of the secret of it, of who Bettie is, that comes across in the photographs, that makes her image and her personality. That’s part of it.
Actually, I was thinking earlier that Liv Tyler is perfect because she seems so authentic.
Right, exactly. That’s what people are connecting with, is Bettie’s authenticity.
I have to ask this. I know that when she came back into the public life, she had been through a lot. When you were speaking to her, where was she at on the spectrum of born-again Christianity? If she was talking openly about her sex life, I can’t imagine she was that deep into it at that point.
Well, she did not see a contradiction between being a born-again Christian and what she had done as a pin-up model. And she in fact developed some beef with the fundamentalists because they didn’t want her to dance, and she liked to dance. They wanted her to remarry her first husband because they considered divorce the worst possible sin, and that was bad for her. But no, she went to church. When I knew her, she went to church, and of course, at the beginning of the film, we have Reverend Schuller officiating at her funeral. She had used to go to Easter and Christmas services at his church, the Crystal Cathedral. And of course, you know, he was a huge TV evangelist. And he said to me, that day of the funeral, “It took Bettie Page to bring me and Hugh Hefner together.”
That’s sort of magical.
Yeah, it really is!
I’m wondering what kind of state her mental health was in when you knew her.
Well, once she got out of Patton State in ‘92, she never went back into an institution. She was under regular care. When I first met her, she was living in a halfway house owned by the State of California and run by Patton State, so she was free to come and go. But it was to transition her out. She was regularly seeing a psychiatrist, and she was taking medication. But in the whole narration of the film, you can tell she’s completely lucid. She doesn’t sound like she’s having mental issues. All the voiceovers you hear, telling her life story, in all the hours of recording it with her, this was all after the mental institution stuff.
Just from the little snippets I’ve heard, she sounds like she knows exactly what she’s doing. And it sounded like she really enjoyed talking about all of these things, although she had been very guarded about her personal life before that.
Yeah, she was happy to talk about her own experience. But reflecting on the meaning of it? You might as well have asked to talk to the moon or something. She was happy to tell all the stories.
I’m really looking forward to finally getting to see the film. We’ll be sending a whole group of people from Luna Luna to the New York opening. We’re all very excited about it! Are there any other big events we can tell people about, aside from the ones in New York and LA we’ve already mentioned?
There are actually burlesque groups all over the country that are organizing performances and events either at the screenings or in connection with the screenings. I don’t even know what all of them are. People can go to our website, or connect with us on Facebook, to find out all that stuff.
There’s a Bettie Fest in Atlanta on the 27th of December, in which there’s going to be burlesque performances and all sorts of Bettie related stuff. And there’s events like that all over the country.
Wonderful! Thank you so much, Mark! Congratulations!
IMAGES courtesy of Bettie Page Reveals All
Lynsey G is a writer, reviewer, interviewer, columnist and blogger writing for and about sex, feminism, and porn since 2007. Formerly a smut scribe for Fox, Juggs, and Tight magazines, she’s also written for xoJane, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Corset Magazine, TOSKA, MadisonBound.com, and WHACK! Magazine. She’s still on a high after winning a 2013 Feminist Porn Award for her short film, “Consent: Society,” and is now at work blogging at her own website and working on a few books of various types.