Mark Mori, a documentary filmmaker, has made Bettie Page Reveals All, a documentary about the infamous pin-up girl of the fifties. What’s unique about this new movie is that Bettie narrates the whole film. For the first and only time, Page tells her own story in her own words, directed by Mori.
JNU: What’s your background? Have you been a documentary filmmaker for a long time?
MM: My first film, which was made more than twenty years ago, received an Academy Award nomination. Since then, I’ve been making theatrical and television documentaries and reality shows, that type of thing.
JNU: What was the movie that got nominated?
MM: It was called Building Bombs; it was a story about a whistleblower in a nuclear weapons factory and how they were dumping radioactive waste and contaminating aquifers in four states. I did an expose on that.
JNU: So what gave you the idea to do a documentary on Bettie Page?
MM: Well, I was living and working in Los Angeles at the time and my entertainment attorney was also representing Bettie in the entertainment field. I had lunch with him and he showed me the book “Bettie Page: Life of a Pin-Up Legend” which had just been published. I told him that I would love to make a documentary of this. I had made all these kind of serious political documentaries and I wanted to do something more fun. I really knew nothing about Bettie, except her image was familiar. Once I looked at the book, I knew it would make a good documentary without really know anything about her story. I arranged to meet her for lunch and we became friends.
She would regale me with these stories and it was all just great fun to her. So she agreed to let me do this film of her life and there was almost nobody in the last twenty years of her life that actually talked to her face to face.
MM: Because she was a recluse. She liked the fact that she had fans but she wanted to be remembered for how she was in her photographs. She could not understand why people were still interested in her. She wanted to live her life quietly and she didn’t want to have to deal with people. She and I would go out to lunch in public and nobody would recognize her.
JNU: Could she have passed on her knowledge to other performers in some way or did she not want to do that?
MM: She didn’t view herself as possessing any special knowledge. She could tell you in detail all these stories of things that happened and what she did from her point of view. She had a good memory, but the concept of teaching what she did to anyone else probably wouldn’t have occurred to her. If you had asked her, she wouldn’t have know what to do.
JNU: So Bettie Page was a feminist icon, ahead of her time. She didn’t really care what anybody thought did she?
MM: No and she didn’t realize that she “doing anything”. In other words, she was just being herself. She was a force of nature with no self-awareness. It wasn’t like she was setting out to make some statement or to be some kind of a role model. She was only working on a job and having fun doing it and that’s all that was to her.
JNU: Was she surprised when she was arrested and by the congressional hearings and senate committees?
MM: Not only was she surprised, but also she was completely outraged that they would charge her with indecent exposure. She said: “I was not indecent” and refused to plead guilty to that charge. If she had have just plead guilty, everybody would have been able to go home; but there were photographers covering the trial who had been taking pictures of nude women but telling their wives that they were out fishing. They wanted to get out of there, but she took a stand and they ended up dropping that charge. One of the photographers covering the trial said she had more courage than twenty photographers.
JNU: Did she realize that she was way ahead of her time? I mean she must have known what the law was. She must have been aware of the very conservative values of the people around her.
MM: I don’t think she paid any attention to it or knew much about it. I don’t think until she was arrested and charged with indecent exposure that she really thought that much about problems with nudity in an open field, on a farm: that was so natural to her. She couldn’t understand why people thought that was a problem.
Once she had realized that people did consider it a problem she started to be a little more careful I think.
JNU: So she was a free spirit then?
MM: She was such a free spirit: a force of nature who didn’t stop to think about what she was doing.
JNU: I’d like to have that kind of attitude.
MM: It’s also what comes through in the photographs. She wasn’t trying to create something or put on something. She was, I think, the number one actress in terms of still photography.
JNU: Why is that? Because she’s a natural?
MM: Well, yes, she is a natural but she also worked really hard at it from a very young age. And, she used to study her photographs to find out how to be better. She did her own hair and make-up and even, unawares, directed a lot of the photography.
JNU: She had a good idea of her own art?
MM: It was all done without calculation. It was just who she was, which was the amazing thing about her and the unique spirit you get in her photographs.
JNU: How long did you know her for? I know she died in 2008.
MM: I first met her in 1996. I’ve done a number of interviews with her over the years and the last time I saw her was in the hospital a week before she died.
JNU: You knew nothing about burlesque before you met Bettie. How do you feel about burlesque now after having known her?
MM: I don’t know how big the burlesque movement was back on 1996. I only discovered this kind of neo-burlesque thing since I began to know Bettie and make this movie. In fact, I didn’t understand for a good while that Bettie’s fans were these young women who found their sexual identity from Bettie.
JNU: I think that’s part of burlesque as a whole, you know.
MM: Exactly. Anyhow, I’m a big fan of burlesque fan now. I have had some burlesque girls who have volunteered on the film. I have had one burlesque troupe show the trailer during their tour.
JNU: Bettie has launched a thousand looks hasn’t she?
MM: Yes. Tempest Storm was at the premiere and there’s a clip of Tempest Storm and Bettie together in my film. There were a lot of burlesque dancers at the premiere of my movie. Some of the burlesque women that I worked with and got to know very well have gone on to very lucrative careers as Bettie Page models for Bettie Page lingerie.
JNU: Is Bettie Page lingerie a huge business?
MM: Yes. Bettie Page clothing did ten million dollars in business last year. Then there’s the Bettie Page licensing that made six million dollars last year. She was one of the top incoming-earning dead celebrities tied with George Harrison and Andy Warhol. She was named by Men’s Health Magazine as one of the hottest women of all time. Time Magazine just named her as one of the 100 people most influential in fashion. There have been French fashion designers who have said that they modeled their designs on Bettie Page.
JNU: Do you think that’s because of the rise of burlesque in the last ten years? Burlesque is becoming mainstream and quite fashionable so people want to dress like that, perhaps.
MM: Well, yes I think dressing up and having fun: that’s part of burlesque. The whole retro theme is all an attempt to have fun and style. To me, what you’ve got going on in larger society is so stultifying. Burlesque is an outlet for people to have fun and be creative. It’s worthwhile, fun self-expression.
JNU: So what’s next for the movie then?
MM: It has only just recently premiered at Viva Las Vegas. Next are film festivals and we’re in discussion with a number of distributors and so it’ll be in some film festivals. We’re in discussion about what theatres to put it in and what other venues. I’m looking to arrange screenings with burlesque performances, for instance. We’re looking for creative ways to get the film out. People could have house parties with the DVD of the film. There’s a hair salon in California that’s having a party and screening in the salon.
The film is really a grassroots effort by and for Bettie fans. I could go to a studio for financing, but it wouldn’t be Bettie’s film. They would dilute and homogenize it, not want it to be controversial. So we are raising money on the website for the distribution of the film. People can still get their name in the credits. People can get involved in any way they want to, just by spreading the word. To visit the movie’s official site, go here