Wednesday, December 11, 2013

PopFlix: Bettie Page Reveals All

Pop Culture Iconography

"Pop Culture Icon"

Let's add this label to the collection of words whose meaning has been debased through overuse. Enter it into a search engine and you'll be lead to articles of the generalized format "Top NN Pop Culture Icons Of/That XX", In which NN represents the length of the list, from about 10 to 200, and XX defines the frame of reference, "...of the 1970s" for example, or "...That Mean Your a Baby-Boomer". You'll also find names which have been so annointed by the discretionary powers of the author. The Beatles, Mickey Mouse and Elvis are in the pantheon. Today The Times-Picayune awarded the title to Nelson Mandela, as if the other accolades he earned just aren't adequate.

But when portraits of Jerry Garcia and Jerry Mathers (Leave It To Beaver) hang on the same wall, you begin to feel the need for a device which mitigates the obvious dissimilarity, an "Iconic Scale" perhaps. Or maybe we just need more stringent qualifications, qualifications which also capture the spirit of the label "Pop Culture Icon".

If you don't happen to have any of your own, please feel free to borrow my criteria which I believe are necessary to qualify as a Pop Culture Icon. To be considered a Pop Culture Icon, a candidate must be Popular, that is, they must have some breadth of appeal. This low and obvious hurdle seems to be the sole criterion for inclusion on the lists that I've mentioned, but does nothing to capture the spirit of the word "Iconic". The appeal needs to go beyond mere likeability to something more akin to Passion. For any candidate to be a true Pop Culture Icon they must be able to ellicit an emotional connection with their fans. The final qualification, and perhaps the most stringent, is that a Pop Culture Icon must Personify a set of values which are important to their fans and form the basis of the relationship.

These three criteria--popularity, passion and personification--when applied even casually, can help us parse the few true Pop Culture Icons from the many pretenders.

You may disagree. The challenge of defining a Pop Culture Icon deserves more space than I can justify in this post. But the subject helps me as I try to understand Bettie Page.

Bettie Page Reveals All

The latest treatment of the pin-up queen's story opened in theatres across the country last weekend. The documentary "Bettie Page Reveals All" covers much of the same content as the 2005 biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page". What makes this telling a significant contribution to our understanding of Bettie Page is that it is narrated by the star in her own words. So much of what we believe we know about Bettie Page has been filtered through the interpretation of others. If nothing else, Page's narration complements the facts of her life with a greater appreciation of her unique personality. If you're a fan of Bettie Page, or like me, fascinated by her story and it's place in popular culture, "Bettie Page Reveals All"  is well worth your time. If not, you're likely to leave the theatre wondering what all the fuss is about.

I suspect that most people today may recognize the name "Bettie Page", and some will associate the name with "pin-up" or the 1950's. I know of Page as I know of most things which predate me, through my parents, who were even greater victims of popular culture than their son. But even her fans must admit that there is very little reason today for a broader appreciation of Page. Her career was short, long-ago, and even then obscure.

More detailed bigraphies of Page than are justified here are easily available on the web, but for the purposes of this post, I'll provide a very brief summation of her story. Bettie Page was a model for lingerie, nude, bondage, and s&m photographs and short films from about 1950 to 1957. She drew wider attention when she was featured as the 1955 centerfold for the Christmas pictorial of Playboy, and then again in 1957 when she was called to testify before Senator Estes Kefauver's committee investigating the production of pornagraphy. Page soon left the public eye and assumed a private life for the next thirty years.

In the mid 1970's Page was rediscovered by several artists fascinated by her persona. Thus Bettie Page was introduced to a new, broader audience through a series of caricatures which referenced her earlier lingerie poses and trademark dark, banged hairstyle. Interest in Page grew through the early '80's, intensified by the complete vacuum of information which surrounded the star. Page herself was unaware of the new interest she was receiving, spending most of her life from 1979 to 1992 in mental hospitals.

With the help of friends and fans, Page eventually regained control of her image and recouped some of the royalties she was due. She granted several interviews, hoping to correct what she believed to be misperceptions about her life. Page never allowed herself to be photgraphed in her later period, going as far as attending public "appearances" by speakerphone. Page died in 2008 on this very date.

Mark Mori, the director of "Bettie Page Reveals All" met Page in the late 1990's. He began conducting interviews with Page, often picking her up at her group home in Los Angeles and taking her to a nearby diner for their conversations. The recordings of those interviews, originally intended only as background, now serve as the narration of the film.

Though long past her infamous modeling career, Page's narration reveals a personality that I believe served her throughout her life. Page was smart, smarter than you would ever expect given the story of her family, career and later struggles. Her honesty is often surprising as she recalls her career and romances with an uninhibited frankness. She is unashamed as she describes her love of modeling as well as her love of sex. And this lack of shame is not born from a naivete but from a refusal to accept, both then and later, society's rules regarding women and sex. Any attempt to imply a moral judgment of her life is quickly and confidantly rebuffed.

Bettie Page's life can and has been the basis of an interesting and entertaining story. My own fascination with Bettie Page is less with Page herself and more with the young women who, more than fifty years later, are still drawn by her persona. "Bettie Page Reveals All" opened in Chicago at a the Music Box Theatre on a bitterly cold Friday evening. The crowd was small compared to an opening night of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. About 20 or so young women were dressed in a style appropriate to the 1950's, about a third of them were dressed in a style which would have been considered inappropriate in the period.

I'm sure some in attendance were drawn by a broad nostalgia for anything associated with the 1950's. Some may have been satisfying a hipster aesthetic which feeds itself on constant association with the obscure. But these young women showed up and dressed seemingly to testify that they too subscribed to some set of values which they shared with Bettie Page.

Bettie Page has frequently been described as a "Pop Culture Icon". And though I began this post with a discussion of the misuse of this label, I have no interest in evaluating its application to Bettie Page. But I suggested earlier that a true Pop Culture Icon personifies some set of values which are important to their fans.

Less because of her behavior than her personality, and helped by history's capacity to refine and redefine distant events, Bettie Page resurfaces as needed to provide young women with a model for accepting sexualty on their own terms.