Don’t be surprised if you see a few girls on the frozen sidewalks of Toronto and Montreal tomorrow sporting perfectly curled black bangs and decked out in polka-dot bustiers or leopard print bikinis or lace-and-leather fetish costumes in spite of the cold.
A striptease convention in town? A BDSM-themed bachelorette?
No, they’ll be lining up for the eagerly anticipated premiere of Bettie Page Reveals All, the authorized film bio of the late ‘Queen of the Pinups’, which arrives for a week-long engagement in both cities Friday night. The next day it premieres in Cleveland before moving on to openings across the U.S. northeast later in the month.
Originally debuting on the film festival circuit more than a year ago, Bettie Page Reveals All has achieved a celebrity all its own after launching an unusual rollout to North American theaters in November. Instead of a typical nationwide release, BPRA has hopped across the continent, from one art-house theater to another, often as the result of online fan requests.
Openings — more than 70 so far — typically draw crowds of young fans in Bettie lookalike costumes and feature live burlesque performances, contests, prizes, parties and director Q&As (director Mark Mori will appear via Skype at the Toronto opening).
And while BPRA feels like a old-fashioned, Rocky Horror-style underground cult hit, it’s really a social media-driven viral phenomenon. Funded in part by $80,000 raised through a crowdfunding campaign that received donations from fans in 30 countries, the film has also benefited from a passionate online community that promotes the picture, lobbies for screenings, and organizes events that turn premieres into lively celebrations of Bettie’s life and spirt.
It’s also breathed new life into the posthumous career of a screen and sex icon who nearly faded into obscurity after a 7-year career as a pinup and fetish model in the 1950s.
Director Mori, 64, was not only one of the last people to see Bettie before her death in 2008, he was one of the first to help lift her out of poverty when he found her living in an L.A. halfway house nearly 20 years ago. And his determination to bring a factual account of Bettie’s life to the screen, repairing decades of misconceptions and inaccurate reports, is itself the stuff of tinseltown legend.
Mori was an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker when he met Bettie in 1996; the pair shared the same attorney, who arranged a lunch meeting. The reclusive star had been out of the public spotlight for decades and was living on social security after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Mori became one of the first people to pay Bettie for her story, embarking on a “labor of love” that took more than a decade to bring to the screen.
“She and I had lunch together and she would regale me with tales of her fetish and bondage shoots,” Mori said in an interview with Lingerie Talk. “It was like talking to your grandmother about her wild sex parties.
“I became quite fond of Bettie, and people who see the film will too,” he added. “She was completely unique in history.”
BPRA covers the broad strokes of Bettie’s life: her modest Tennessee upbringing; her career posing in erotic men’s magazines and short films; her battles against censorship; her retreat from the public eye after embracing Christianity; and her eventual battles with mental illness that left her alone and broke.
It also features commentary from those who knew her (Hugh Hefner, burlesque legend Tempest Storm) to those who were inspired by her (Dita Von Teese, lingerie maven Chantal Thomass).
But the heart of the film is Bettie herself: Mori had extraordinary access to the camera-shy star and taped six hours of interviews with her over a decade beginning in 1996.
The resulting R-rated film (which is described as a “docu-comedy romp”) lays to rest many of the misunderstandings people have about a star whose posthumous celebrity appeal now rivals that of Marilyn Monroe.
“The big (misconception) is that she regretted what she did, that she was ashamed of it,” Mori said. “Bettie never regretted what she did.
“She was posing, she was playing dress-up, she wasn’t having sex on camera. She couldn’t understand why people thought this was a problem.”
BPRA also sheds light on the much-discussed topic of Bettie’s sexuality and bedroom habits, disappointing many who have elevated her to the status of a hypersexed goddess.
“She was not some kind of libertine. She was married four times, but was really a one-man woman,” Mori said. “She said she probably had less sex in those seven years she was modeling than at any time in her life.
“People assume that because she did all those poses she was into that in her personal sex life. Bettie was very free, and she was not hung up or inhibited about sex, but she was not into all the fetish stuff.
“I don’t think she understood the fetish mentality. She was playing a game in front of the camera.”
What qualifies Bettie as a true feminist icon, Mori argues, was her uncensored embrace of sexuality.
“She talked about her sex life the way she would talk about going to the store to buy bread,” Mori said. “It was just a natural part of who she was.”
Bettie was also guileless and unaffected by her own celebrity, Mori said. In fact, when she gradually emerged from obscurity in the 1990s, she was famously unaware of her own cult status.
“She had no ego, she never thought of herself as something special,” Mori said. “When I met her she was happy to talk to me, but she didn’t understand what the big deal was. She was mystified that people would be interested in her.
“She was a force of nature with no self-awareness.”
That charming lack of pretentiousness is the heart of Bettie’s personality, Mori believes, and the reason why women today admire her with such fervor.
“There is no calculation in Bettie, and that’s part of her charm. It’s the authenticity of her that is part of what people love about her” he said.
“It’s that authenticiy that allows women to feel a real emotional connection with Bettie,” he added. “What a lot of women tell me is that they find their sexual confidence in identifying with Bettie. She showed them that anybody can be sexy.
“By identifying with her, women are saying, ‘I’m not a supermodel. I’m not Barbie.’ Whatever ideal they are expected to fit into, Bettie Page is a way for modern women to access their image of themselves as sexy and confident, and that’s pretty powerful.”
These days, of course, the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon has created a new audience of women keen to explore the boundaries of their sexuality (sometimes with the aid of official Bettie Page paddles, whips and other gear).
But what would Bettie herself think about the sudden surge in fetish fun?
“She would have laughed at it,” Mori said. “I don’t think she would understand what the appeal of it was.
“Bettie would be non-judgmental, because that’s the way she was. But she wouldn’t get it.”
NOTE: Bettie Page Reveals All will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes and VOD on her birthday, April 22.