Friday, December 12, 2008
Like the other great American icons of the fifties, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, there was an absolute undefinable quality about Bettie Page that separated her from anyone else before or since. There was an absolute goodness about her that came through in every photograph and moving image of her taken. It is that goodness that resonates most a day after her death at the age of 85. It is that unmistakable decency that she possessed that continues to make the thousands of photographs taken of her throughout the fifties so unbelievably relevant and haunting well over fifty years later.
While her passing wasn’t unexpected, there is a certain void in knowing that one of the last of the great icons from the decade that brought us Rock n Roll, Playboy and the modern teenager is gone. Unlike Elvis, Jimmy and Marilyn it is hard to explain exactly what it was that Bettie Page did that made her so earth shattering, but she was so incredibly special, and in a very striking way the photos taken of her are as important as the music Presley made and the film’s Monroe and Dean shot. They define a period, they keep it alive and finally they transcend it.
I got my first main introduction to the artistry of Bettie Page in my early twenties. Not surprisingly it came from a female fan, as so many of Bettie’s most dedicated fans are women. A fact that makes her totally unique among the most famous of pin-up models. I became hooked instantly on Bettie when that college friend in the early nineties showed me a small fan made book she had in her collection focusing on Bettie (I still remember it contained the common misspelling ‘Betty’). The pictures struck me instantly as having the same qualities as Andre de Dienes remarkable photographs of the young Marilyn Monroe, and Alfred Wertheimer’s searing pics of Elvis Presley throughout 1956. The pictures had a jolt to them, they felt important.
Of course there is more to Bettie Page than just those remarkable photographs. There are those strange and often haunting short film loops she made that are simultaneously sweet, silly and completely unforgettable. There are the many books and articles that have been written on her, all trying (and most failing) to capture the enigma that was Bettie Page. There are the many imitators, the artistic renderings, the movies based on her life (Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page with a remarkable Gretchen Mol being the best and most well meaning) and yet none of them ever quite capture what it was that made Bettie Page so totally unique and memorable. I seriously doubt any ever will, although no doubt people will keep trying.
Bettie Page leaves behind one of the most distinctive and moving artistic legacies of the past fifty years. The five foot and five inches tall Tennessee native who turned away from the spotlight so soon after she came into it is gone but her memory is permanently burned into the hearts of her millions of adoring fans, male and female, all of whom continue to recognize that Bettie Page was one of the key figures in Twentieth Century popular culture. Her legacy will not vanish anytime soon.