Mark Mori's Muse
Filmmaker and Academy Award nominee Mark Mori (B.A.’82) finds inspiration for his newest documentary in pinup model and icon Bettie Page
Interview by Dave Cohen (B.A. '94)
Flimmaker Mark Mori (B.A. '82) with 2011 Playboy Playmate of the Year Claire Sinclair at the opening of Mori's film "Bettie Page Reveals All."
Bettie Page, born Bettie Mae Page in 1923 in Nashville, Tenn., certainly led an eventful and interesting life as one of America’s earliest pinup models. With her jet black hair and trademark bangs, Page, who was a college graduate, became one of the earliest playmates in Playboy Magazine as “Miss January 1955.” A pop-culture icon who had been out of the public eye since the mid to late 1950’s, Page, and the images she created, to this day continue to show their influence in fashion and sexuality. Mark Mori (B.A. ’82) has taken on the project of uncovering the stories behind the myths regarding one of this country’s earliest sex symbols as the producer and director of the film, “Bettie Page Reveals All.”
Dave Cohen: What was it about Bettie Page and this project that captured your interest?
Mark Mori: Well, a lot of my other films and documentaries have been political, investigative, you know, what you might call pretty serious subjects. This one is more about a cultural icon, a cultural phenomenon and I would have to say that it was the most fun documentary that I’ve worked on.
DC: Why do you think that there is still an interest in Bettie Page and her pinup photos all these many years later considering what we’re exposed to these days?
MM: The interest today is greater than ever. Beyonce even made a video imitating Bettie Page. The audience today is young women. It has changed completely from men in the 1950’s to young women today and I think it has to do with a problem in the culture. These young women are looking for their sexual confidence, their sexual identity and they are not finding it in the mainstream culture. The message is, “You have to be a super model,” you know, “You have to be some unattainable level of beauty,” is the message that a lot of these women get. They find in Bettie Page something that’s outside the mainstream culture that they can identify with. A woman that is confident, successful and sexy all at the same time.
DC: Interesting because, posing for the kinds of photos that she did in the ‘50’s, she herself portrayed an unattainable image for most women during that time period.
MM: If women were looking at her image and looking at it as something that was attainable, I’m not aware of that. That may have happened but, you know, in the ‘50’s the ideal for women was more to be a housewife and a mother, which maybe is a little different today. I don’t know that the housewives and mothers, while that was an idealized role also, Bettie’s audience was overwhelmingly men and it was not even considered acceptable in mainstream culture and the fact that it was trailblazing was completely unknown. In other words, that only became clear in retrospect and these were pulp magazines. This was considered ephemera. It was considered really nothing in those days, I mean, Bettie Page did not achieve mainstream success or pop culture status even though she was the most widely published model and probably the most photographed model of the 20th century.
DC: Although she did do a little mainstream acting during her career, she simply was a pinup girl?
MM: She simply was a pinup girl, but what I think is clear now is that she is the best person, the best actress, in a still photograph. I mean, you have to act in a way that the images are captured at the moment, but what she portrays in a still photograph, she is the most successful ever at that and that’s what people are relating to today.
DC: From what I’ve read, she did not totally comprehend her popularity at the time? Why do you think that was?
MM: Well she didn’t really comprehend it at all. It’s part of who Bettie is. She was completely uncalculating unlike just about anybody else I’ve met. She was just very much there in the moment, taking the world as it is and not thinking about it. She was more like a force of nature and she was just naturally there. She considered all of this to be sort of nothing, just a job. But that’s sort of how she achieved the charm, by just being there and being herself. In her later years, she liked the adulation but she just couldn’t understand why people were attracted to these images of her.
DC: Tell me a little about her background and how she came to be a pinup model.
MM: She came from a dirt poor background. I mean, it could not have been any poorer. They were living on rice and beans when they were kids. Her mother had six kids and her father was a bad guy and ran away and left her mother with the kids. They were so poor her mother had to put the three girls in an orphanage for a year or two. Bettie was unusual for a woman in the 1930’s and 1940’s. She graduated number two in her class in high school and worked her way through college, but she wanted adventure. She went to San Francisco, Miami and Haiti and ended up in New York not really necessarily with the intention of being a model but, I think, she was just looking for something outside of what was just the normal life; what a woman might do. In high school, she dated the most prominent sports guy in school in Nashville and, of course, the tradition would have been to marry him and have kids, but she didn’t want that. They were married but got divorced. She was looking for something else and it could have been modeling, it could have been acting but she just really kind of stumbled into the modeling.
DC: You were fortunate to be able to spend time with her while preparing for this film project?
MM: Well, what’s fascinating about that is she had disappeared for 35 years. She left modeling and left New York in 1957 and nobody knew what happened to her until she re-emerged in 1992. People were actually looking for her, fans of hers and people in the media, and it was a big mystery. Even after she resurfaced in ’92 she was still a recluse and, while she liked the adulation of the fans, did really not want to go out in public. I was probably one of a half-dozen people who were actually meeting her in person and talking to her in person, and she was great. I mean, I recorded these conversations with her, which now form the narration for the film. Her personality comes through; her personality carries the movie because she’s the narrator. It was a lot of fun with her because it’s like having your grandmother regale you with stories of bondage and fetish photo shoots.
DC: Did she talk at all about why she disappeared from the public for all of those years?
MM: She was not trying to disappear. She was trying to cut herself off from the modeling because she just wanted to move on to another phase of her life. Within a year after leaving modeling she was remarried for the second time and had kind of a crisis with that husband and became a born-again Christian. Then she went to bible school for three years and she never tried to get back in touch with any of the people who she knew from her modeling days so there was no connection for them to find her. She was just leading a quiet life. She got remarried again later in the ‘60’s and she just wasn’t interested in being involved in that world. She was not trying to live in secret but nobody knew where she was.
DC: So does the film cover her whole life or just the period in time when she was the most popular pinup girl?
MM: It tells, basically, her whole life. From birth, her whole modeling career and a lot of stories that people don’t know. All people know about Bettie Page is the photographs so we get stories behind the scenes and we see photographs and film that have never been seen before. We found people with photos that had not been published before. We find out what she was doing during those 45 years that she had disappeared, and then what happened after she reemerged and she became this major cultural icon.
DC: During those times that you were talking with her and interviewing her, did you come away with a different impression about her than maybe what your initial perception was when you started this project?
MM: You know, I did have to think a lot about, “What is it about Bettie Page and these photographs?” I realized it’s her personality that comes through and when talking to her that she manages to project the personality and who she is in the photographs, so I discovered that real person behind the photograph. But, the most surprising thing was, part of where she was during the disappeared years was in a mental institution. She had actually been charged with attempted murder because she had stabbed her landlady. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was actually confined to a mental hospital for 10 years and nobody knew this. Only her family knew this.