I Would Imagine the Camera Was My Boyfriend
“We go on the bus and went 30 miles away to Galston, Tennessee, and we were married in five minutes. And when I got on the bus to go back with him, I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’” Recalling her first marriage, Bettie Page sounds like she does throughout Bettie Page Reveals All, at once bemused and fatigued, animated and reflective, as if she’s performing a self she remembers being. In 1943, that self married her high school sweetheart, Billy Neal, just before he was drafted into the Navy during World War II.
The story sounds like one that might have been told by any number of young women back then. Just so, as Page narrates, you don’t see images of her life, exactly, but rather, images of the life she might have had, stock images of a couple entering a courthouse, a bus, and when she recalls her move to San Francisco, a bit of vintage color footage showing hilly streets and the Bay. Here in California, so far from her hometown of Nashville, she had her first screen test, an experience rendered in separate glamour shots of her and then her partner for that test, the classically handsome John Russell, and then stock footage of a woman in a hair stylist’s chair, the back of her generic head on display as the stylist’s generic hands work at perfecting the generic do.
This is the sort of contradiction that structures the story of Bettie Page in Mark Mori’s documentary. The film, in fact, reveals very little. Page—like Marlene Dietrich before her, in Maximilian Schell’s Marlene (1984)—never appears on screen as her present self, instead leaving you to remember the era that made her and the product she as, imaged in the many, many photos and short films of her as the Queen of the Pinups.
Celebrated here by interview subjects ranging from Deeta Von Tees end Perez Hilton to Hugh Hefner and the Betty Pages publisher Greg Theakston, she appears in photos taken by members of the “camera clubs” formed to get around newly instituted laws and to serve the needs of amateur pornographers during the late 1940s. As these members reveal their own fantasies, their own projections onto their object (she was, as directed, “saucy, frisky, angry or sullen”), she suggests she found her own way to perform fantasy: “I would imagine the camera was my boyfriend.”
This relationship to the camera is visible in most of the photos and footage of Bettie Page, perhaps especially in those she took with two women photographers, Bunny Yaeger, whom she met and worked with in Miami (together, they made the famous cheetah photos) and Paula Klaw, with whom she made a series of dominatrix photo spreads and films). These photographers recall their work with Bettie in ways that resemble the men’s memories (Bettie was an open and generous performer), but with language more focused on their collaborations and their mutual understanding of their art.
In most of her photos, for al takers, Bettie looks directly into the lens, she acts a part—horrified, surprised, doting—and she seduces. This is, of course, her great gift, along with the body that wouldn’t quit, the extra-small and so ideal, waist, the bangs, the parted or broadly smiling lips, the bottom tilted up, receptive but also, just removed from reach. Her admirers all speak to her brilliant sexuality, her innocence, and her great openness before the camera. None says a thing that even the most casual pop cultural observer—or Katy Perry or Beyoncé fan—wouldn’t already know.
Titillating as Bettie Page the dreamed-up image might have been and still is, the film notes in passing the troubles she suffered later in life. These life-plot details might also be known to most viewers, that during the ‘60s, she became a Christian missionary until the institution rejected her because she had been divorced. After that, she remembers in brief spurts of narration, she worked for Billy Graham, was married a couple more times (including a remarriage to Billy Neal), and had what is widely known as a “nervous breakdown.” Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, she spent a decade in an institution.
It’s understandable that she doesn’t want to recall these years for Bettie Page Reveals All, and to this end, the film is respectful. It doesn’t pry or sensationalize, but appears to let her tell her own story. But this is the trick of the film, or more precisely, the many cameras that revealed her for so many years. They didn’t show much at all, but only allowed her audience to think so.