The Original Wrecking Ball

Lovely Bettie Page, wearing a highly-distracting swimsuit, tries on a pair of sandals at a show for new shoes in New York. Bettmann/CORBIS

In the past 60 years two Nashville gals have kicked up a ruckus with their exuberant, naughty-but-nice posing - singer Miley Cyrus and pin-up queen Bettie Page. Neither could be described as the Girl Next Door: The former markets herself as an out-of-control neighbor's kid; the latter reveled in the guise of an out-of-control neighbor. But when it comes to pop-culture legs, the gams of Cyrus are nowhere near as long as those of Page, who attained cult status long after she vanished without a trace in 1957, at the height of her fame. On the most recent Forbes list of Top Earning Dead Celebrities, Page ranked eighth, tied with the brainier but less curvaceous Albert Einstein.

The original Wrecking Ball - infamous for her whips, six-inch fetish heels and guileless, guiltless grin - died five years ago, at 85. Back in the 1950s, Page helped usher in the sexual revolution by appearing nude - or nearly so - in girlie mags with tatty titles like Peek, Wink, Gaze, Stare, Titter, Eyeful, and Chicks and Chuckles. Most were kept under the counter or mailed in plain brown wrappers.

Today, she's everywhere. Postcards, posters, playing cards, calendars, lunch boxes, beach towels, fridge magnets, rum labels, mud flaps, and hundreds of websites pay tribute. There's a Zombie Bettie Page subculture with online portals devoted to undead variations of her images. On Halloween, the town of Roswell, Ga., even hosted a Bombshell Bettie'z Zombie Pin-Up Contest.

Katy Perry has copied her bangs; Rihanna, her dominatrix ensembles; Beyoncé, in music videos, the raunchiness of her stag films. New York City has a Nurse Bettie bar and a Bettie Page clothing store, one of 17 in the country. More than a dozen books pay homage to her, and half as many movies, including the 2006 biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol.

The latest addition to the canon is the documentary Bettie Page Reveals All, which opens in Manhattan on November 22 before going into limited release. Directed by Mark Mori, best-known for the Oscar-nominated 1991 doc, Building Bombs, it's narrated by Page from audio tapes she made at the end of her life. Before this, her husky middle Tennessee drawl could only be heard by most people on a couple of TV interviews and a 1953 Strip-o-rama film loop (she stars as a genie and purrs, "Of course, I'm real!")

There's not much to say about the filmmaking part of Bettie Page Reveals All because there's not a whole lot of it on display. Page wouldn't allow Mori to film her, explaining: "I want to be remembered as I was in the pictures." The younger Page always left something to the imagination. In the case of Bettie Page Reveals All, imagine a PowerPoint presentation crammed with stock footage and scored by the Orchestra.

Between slices of vintage cheesecake, a conga line of still-besotted photographers and former boyfriends attests to Page's allure. We learn that she loved hamburgers almost as much as cavorting without clothes; that she carried a brick in her purse to fend off unwanted suitors. In Mori's interviews not included in the film, she admits that she only had three orgasms in her life and disapproved of hardcore porn. While living at a halfway house in the early 1990s, she happened upon an X-rated magazine and was appalled by its graphic contents.

If Page doesn't exactly reveal all in the documentary, she does bare enough to hold our attention. The early Playboy centerfold (Miss January, 1955) who graced a million service-station walls candidly discusses her Baptist upbringing, her molestation at the hands of her "sex-fiend" father (even barnyard animals weren't safe), her stay in an orphanage, her gang rape, her not-so-brilliant career as a schoolteacher, her move to New York and "discovery" by an off-duty cop on a Coney Island beach in 1949. It was the cop who persuaded Page to change her hairstyle to those spectacular bangs.

She was soon getting paid $10 an hour to model for camera clubs, consisting of several dozen male enthusiasts who would pay to snap her picture in a variety of "art poses." Once while posing in the all-together in upstate New York she was arrested for indecent exposure. The word indecent outraged Page. "There's nothing indecent about me!" she tells Mori.

Page talks about acting in five-minute, 8-mm epics like "Betty's Clown Dance" and "Fearful Ordeal in Restraint-land". She talks about getting subpoenaed, in 1955, to appear before a Senate committee investigating pornography: the father of a Florida boy scout who had committed suicide found bondage photos of her in his son's room. Though Page was never called to testify, she says the tumult and other pressures made her quit modeling. She became a born-again Christian, hung up her leopard-print bikini for good and disappeared from public view. She was 34.

During Page's subsequent "lost years" she struggled against poverty and mental illness, which reached full flower in the late 1960s, after her arrest for waving a pistol in public. A few months later, she held her third husband and his three kids at knifepoint, threatening to kill them if they took their eyes off the portrait of Jesus she was gripping in her other hand. "My mind snapped," Page says in the documentary. After twice assaulting elderly landladies, she was charged with attempted murder and, in 1983, committed to a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for nine years.

Page was virtually forgotten when artist Dave Stevens created a Bettie character in his graphic novel The Rocketeer. Her re-entry into the public consciousness was accelerated in 1991 when Jennifer Connelly played her in the movie version of that book. The film launched a revival, among women as well as men, that continues unabated.

How does one account for Page's enduring mystique? In a simpler era, she embodied a playful, almost naive, sexuality. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis calls her a true genius of the body. Throughout the history of art, Dargis observes, women appear, smiling demurely away from the gaze of the male viewer. Page, on the other hand, often made her appearance into a performance, staring straight into the lens with "a grin that is by turns twinkling and devouring.... She knows what you want; she wants it, too."

She also knew what she didn't want. The most heartbreaking scene in Bettie Page Reveals All involves a preview of The Real Bettie Page that the octogenarian Page attended at the Playboy Mansion. One of Gretchen Mol's holier-than-thou anti-bondage lines so offended her that she bolted from the screening room, screaming, "Lies! Lies! Lies! L-I-E-S! Lies!"

The quintessential poser couldn't stomach poseurs.