I was first introduced to the radiance of Bettie Page in 1983, by the editors of a gay leathermen's magazine. They lent me a VHS bondage tape of Bettie modeling from the 1950s which was so insanely cute that I played it continuously during Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the beginning of a devoted affair.
Miss Page has come a long way in American limelight from the time her pictures were the subject of a full federal obscenity investigation, intent on saving juveniles from the depravity of smut. She became a Christian missionary and no one thought they would ever hear from her again.
But Bettie's story was different from the average Suicide Girl. She was doing fetish photography when the subject was completely removed from any sense of camp or fashion. The closet was shut so tight not even a filament of sex-positivity could be imagined. The damnation she faced must have been entirely without context to comprehend.
It is this history that's the focus of director/writer Mary Harron's new movie, The Notorious Bettie Page. Mary was the director of my episode on Six Feet Under last year, and after meeting her, I marveled, "Wow, a feminist is making the Bettie Page biopic, I can't believe it."
I asked her to talk to me more about her adventures with Bettie...
SB: When I first was introduced to Bettie, it was within the milieu of gay life, the counter-culture that existed in San Francisco and New York. She was like the post-AIDS pin-up girl, a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak period.
It was the same time when bondage and fetish were entering fashion trends, again fueled by gay and punk culture. What do you make of such an unusual rebirth?
MH: It's interesting that gay men and young women have been the twin engines of the Bettie cult. I wonder if her original gay cult had something to do with the ironies inherent in her image, as well as her innate fabulousness as an image.
The Bettie bondage shots are filled with contradiction: her sunny smiles and cheesecake poses are at variance with the pictures' supposed message of dark S&M.
She was the first person to do bondage as fashion, because for her it really was all about dressing up. And there is a camp element in the Bettie catalog: the bondage shots next to homely wallpaper and living room furniture in the Klaw pictures, the leopards with leopard-skin bathing suits in the Bunny Yeager shots.
SB: Bettie went beyond the usual "photogenic" description. What kind of beauty does the camera love like this? What made Page's image so spectacular?
MH: She knew just how to position her face and body for the camera. More importantly, she was so relaxed. One of the secrets of being a great photographic model, as it is for a great film actor, is that you let the camera in. It's an intimacy that the model or actor creates with the lens, that then transmits itself to the viewer.
SB: You point a finger, without drawing a thick line, at her history of sexual abuse, incest, — and her survival of sexual assault, a gang rape. How do you think women recover, sexually, from situations like that?
MH: The abuse by her father was the most damaging, because she was still a child. She was a traumatized person, but she did have an active sex life. Billy Neal, her first husband, told me they had a great sex life and I believe him— it was clearly the motor in their relationship. Sexually abuse, or rape, is an awful trauma but it doesn't mean you will never enjoy sex— although it may mean you become more sexually-identified, as the careers of countless porn stars will attest.
Many men who've seen the film complain that Bettie doesn't react much to the sexual abuse: she doesn't show more rage or grief. But most men have no idea how much sexual shit women go through, how many of their female friends, relatives, and co-workers have been raped or abused in some way. They don't know about it because the women don't talk about it, and just get on with their lives, as Bettie did.
SB: My own personal interpretation of Page's "naivete," and her various personalities as model, missionary, etc., is that she was genuinely crazy, and coping the best way anyone does when they are suffering from mental demons.
But if she had been homely and crazy, or even just plain, what would have happened then? So often it seems that sexual allure is both the salvation and damnation of people who need to be seen more deeply than the surface....
MH: If she had been homely, her mental problems would have been spotted earlier. The people I talked to who knew her in the Fifties all talked about how sweet, friendly, unassuming she was— but at the same time, no one seemed to know her intimately.
Even her first husband, Billy Neal, found her a mystery. That suggests to me that she had sealed herself off: there was something blank and inaccessible about her. She was always late, often hours late, which implies that she would just space out.
Someone can be mentally ill, but if they are young and beautiful and their life is going well, people don't notice because at that point the cracks are almost imperceptible. I think it's significant that Bettie's breakdowns happened in her middle age.
There were a lot of things going wrong for her by then. Her fourth marriage had collapsed, and with it her hopes of happy family life. There were the demons from the past, her father's abuse and the gang rape. You can't discount the traumatic effects of aging. By now she was a middle-aged woman, and she had spent her whole adult life as a beauty. Her identity, her finances, her social life, her sense of herself: everything depended on that, and it was gone.
Bettie's "naivete" in the film should have quotation marks around it. It was deliberate. She had sealed herself off in some protective way from what disturbed her— not an uncommon mode among 50's women— and lived in her own bubble. She had all the evidence in front of her about what the fetish photographs were for, but she chose not to examine it.
Mary Harron's new film project is a script, written with her friend Frances Liscio, based on the book Please Kill Me, about New York punk rock in the 70s. Thanks to Mary, Joe Westmoreland, John Rowberry, and all my collector friends, for the photos and Bettie memories.