It's fun to think of Bettie Page as not only Jackie Kennedy's secret 20th-century sister but as Hugh Hefner's female rival. Six decades ago, Playboy's incredibly dull founder created an empire that turned women into interchangeable sex objects in the guise of liberating Americans from their Puritan hangups. All Page had to counter him with was a body that couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's and an extraordinarily expressive face. Hef made millions while Page posed for chump change for amateur shutterbugs, at least until softcore fetish king Irving Klaw and then pinup photographer Bunny Yeager recognized her uniqueness and she wound up in Playboy itself.
And yet she won; she beat him. Hefner and Playboy are both still with us, but so is Ovaltine—and when was the last time you had any? Page, who died in 2008, is not only the most iconic sexual image of midcentury's louche subcultures but a 21st-century heroine to hipsters and feminists alike. Kids who don't give two hoots about Marilyn Monroe know who Bettie Page is, but if you don't, the new documentary Bettie Page Reveals All will probably bewilder you at times. Like most of her devotees, director Marc Mori isn't great at explaining her appeal to people who aren't already fans, and there's more heat than light in the doc's scrambled introductory sequences. But he does provide a bonanza of incredible images of her in her prime—not only stills ranging from her camera-club days to Yeager's celebrated shots, but film footage in both black and white and color. Better yet, he has Page herself on the soundtrack, humorously and brightly reminiscing in her old age.
The revisionist case now gaining currency in feminist circles that midcentury bombshells like Monroe were knowing and witty self-creations, not exploited victims, is often strained. But as far as Page is concerned, it's indisputable, starting with how she was no spring chicken—starting at age 27, she quit modeling at 34—and her body didn't conform to any accepted notion of female sexual allure. (She wasn't especially busty, and her ultra-lithe torso's transition from tiny waist to flaring hips can look a little geometrically surreal at times.) Not only were her inventive poses often her own idea—a mannequin she wasn't—but she designed and sewed most of her own (very skimpy) outfits, which weren’t generic either.
Very few of her pictures look like anonymous nudie shots. Nearly always, that old male gaze is forced to deal with Page's amazingly vivid personality, an obligation that often clashes with the purpose of anonymous nudie shots. That's equally true of Klaw's bondage photographs, which come off goofy, unexpectedly comic, and ultimately innocent because of how blatantly Page is mugging for the camera. You couldn't depersonalize her if you tried, and that's something that genuinely deserves to be called subversive.
Above all, there's the fact that she's unmistakably having a great time jumping around naked, disporting herself in homemade lingerie or pretending she's either scared witless (as a bondage victim) or else really, really mean (when she's the acting the perp). Page's unabashed and often droll enjoyment of what she's doing doesn't have any parallels in pinup photography that I know of; any man who's ever hastily shut a porn mag because the women's faces look so miserable or apprehensive knows how rare her self-evident pleasure is. And of course, her enjoyment puts her in charge of the situation, either contravening ours—assuming all we wanted was an anonymous nude—or making it blissfully guilt-free.
It's just as well her pictures are so eloquent. The talking heads in Mori's doc aren't much good at analyzing Page's why-not-go-ahead-and-call-it-genius, although the old dudes he's found who used to sign up for her camera-club sessions are an interesting and genial crew. (A glimpse of how strong-willed she could be comes in one geezer's reminiscence of a pastoral session that ended with a police raid; threatened with arrest for indecent exposure, Page got so indignant at the idea that there was anything indecent in what she was doing that the charge was amended to disorderly conduct instead.) The people most responsible for her rediscovery in the '80 and '90s—including comics artists Greg Theakston, editor of The Bettie Pages, and Dave Stevens, whose comic The Rocketeer featured her—have some fascinating things to say about how all that happened.
After she quit modeling in 1959, her whereabouts were unknown and most people guessed she was dead. Instead, it turned out that she'd become a born-again Christian, gotten married a couple of times and slid into religious mania and mental illness. She stayed touchingly unaware of her renewed fame until one determined fanboy—Steve Brewster, founder of the Bettie Scouts of America—tracked her down. No less touchingly, Page refused to ever be photographed as she looked in her old age, saying she'd rather that people remembered her as the Bettie Page of her old pinup and fetish pics. By now, millions do, and Hugh Hefner—who, to be fair, gave her a lot of help in regaining some legal control of her image to make some money out of it at last—can lump it.