This year’s winner of the We See What You Did There award for movie titles, Bettie Page Reveals All fulfills every expectation but one. Though Page died five years ago at the age of 85, she had already been interviewed at length, allowing her to tell her life story in her own words—all is indeed revealed, including her lengthy commitment in a mental hospital during the ’80s. The double entendre gets its due as well, with no part of Page’s iconic anatomy left unrevealed during the film’s parade of still photographs and movie footage recounting her days as a pin-up model. Those hoping for a glimpse of the elderly Page, however, will be disappointed. Afraid that fans would be put off by seeing her as a fat old lady, she refused to appear on-camera, saying that she preferred to be remembered as she was during her heyday. And so her voice remains a ghostly presence throughout, revealing nothing of time’s inexorable dissolution.
Like too many documentaries about celebrities or historical events, Bettie Page Reveals All plays best for a hypothetical viewer who knows absolutely nothing about its subject. For those familiar with the basics, the film merely offers a version of the story illustrated with stock footage, especially in the early going—when Page talks about her first sexual experience, director Mark Mori splices in a shot of two kids kissing from an old movie; when she mentions her first husband going off to fight in World War II, it’s time for random images of soldiers marching. Thankfully, the key years of Page’s life were extremely well documented, so things get much livelier once Page moves to New York and begins posing in bikinis (and less) for “camera clubs,” and they get downright mesmerizing when she begins performing in goofy bondage films for Irving and Paula Klaw. Page doesn’t have much of interest to say about the shoots a half-century later—mostly, she just aurally shrugs, wondering what all the fuss was about—but her younger self’s free-spirited playfulness requires no narration or explanation. That’s precisely why her work has endured.
Near the end of Bettie Page Reveals All, one of its other interview subjects recalls that when Page saw Mary Harron’s 2005 film about her, The Notorious Bettie Page, she shouted, “Lies! Lies!” at the screen. Even if that biopic wasn’t entirely accurate, however, its monochrome look and uninhibited lead performance (by Gretchen Mol) did a better job of conveying Page’s essence than does this doc, which is doggedly prosaic about a poetic personality—one whose brief public career combined the innocent and the lascivious in previously unexplored ways. Hearing Page chuckle ruefully every so often as she recalls this or that detail is amusing, but there are few great autobiographies written from the twilight perspective, and attempting something of the sort in cinematic form, while respectful, inevitably results in a puff piece. Mori sensibly handles Page’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia by shifting to third person, talking to her ex-husband and various cultural historians, but those lost years still feel glossed over, just a regrettable speed bump en route to her triumphant resurgence. Nobody would go see a movie called Bettie Page Withholds Some.