The Subversive Purpose of "Bettie Page Uncensored"
by cast member Ronald Bruce Meyer
revised November 22, 2000
Michael Flores has rewritten "Bettie Page Uncensored" numerous times. It shows. In fact, the writer-director-producer of this on-going "project" tells me he's not in the theatre business but in show business. That shows. And he doesn't go about his business by predictable routes. Maybe that's why he's come up with a winner: he begins with a subversive purpose. And I am pleased to have been a part of it all, even as the show closes tonight.
Still, through all of his re-writes, and through all of the cast changes, the message Flores brings out in his show survives -- it even refuses to be overshadowed by the nudity that might bring in audiences at first encounter. It's a sneaky, subversive thing to do to an audience: promise them a little spice, then hit them with the thesis that women matter, and that the 1950s were brutal to women who believed that.
In that sense, the life of Bettie Page, who is still alive but lives in seclusion in California today, is merely the frame for an unabashedly feminist play. It is a play, however, that doesn't toe the tacit, anti-erotic line of mainstream feminism. It is assuredly not the feminism of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who are out of the mainstream. No, "Bettie Page Uncensored" is more a Camille Paglia-type feminist play. This third incarnation of the life of the "pin-up girl who shocked the world" succeeds in portraying women as creators of their own destinies and as unabashedly sexual creatures -- and succeeds wonderfully, even if the women themselves do not.
No one questions that men are entitled to control their own lives, or that they are entitled to control their own sexuality. What "Bettie Page Uncensored" points out is how the double standard works when enforced as enthusiastically as it was in the 1950s, a time few of us, even those who lived through it, including this actor, can recall. Even today, many still have trouble accepting women as equal parts serious and sexual, even though men get that kind of respect.
"Bettie Page Uncensored" brings back to life, and currency, the sexually repressive days of "I Like Ike." The play reminds us of the limited choices open to women at the dawn of the feminist age: wife, teacher, secretary, nurse. Bettie Page herself tried most of them but found herself in a career that was out of the mainstream -- and that's when the sky fell on her. The life of Bettie Page is the vehicle for exploring that time. The advantage in our day is seeing just how obvious the agenda and standard was in the 1950s.
From the opening sounds, when we heard radio personality Buzz Kilman interview "Bettie Page" as a 77-year-old woman (in the voice of Elisabeth Oas, who played Bettie on-stage for the first, and half of the second, versions of the play), the 1950s is set in tone and style for us: sex was not talked about; divorce was a scandal; cohabitation was illegal; pictures of women in their underwear, as you might see in lingerie catalogs distributed openly today, had to be sold under the counter, and so on.
An Assertive Bettie Page
So what happens to women who pose wearing something less than their underwear? We find out in the opening scene, as "Bettie" recalls and Saturday Evening Post reporter Tiffany Amber (Lori Garrabrant) chronicles. We first see Bettie Page (Sarah Masters) when she and Roz Greenwood (April Lynn Baker) are arrested for indecency -- something that surprises foreign-born model Anna Virtanen (Anna Shemeikka), who has grown up seeing undressed women in magazines sold openly in Europe.
But the Bettie Page we see in this show is not a victim: she stands up for herself, without shame for being arrested while men were "taking pictures of our bodies." She even argues with the judge. The judge (Ronald Bruce Meyer) doesn't quite know how to deal with an assertive woman and, with a sigh, reduces her indecency charge and sets her free.
But freedom for 1950s women, especially women who do bondage and nude posing, is short-lived, if not illusory. While learning about Bettie's life -- from her first meeting with Paula and Irving Klaw (Lisa Hunter and Daniel Preble, respectively) to her browbeating by Sen. Estes Kefauver (Meyer again) -- we learn that a woman may be paid a mere $35 a week to be a secretary, but may get $50 an hour to "pose and smile."
What does that say about how society values women -- and what a fight it would take, and has taken, to change things?
While Bettie Page is slightly above-average for your girl-next-door type, she respects marriage and is faithful to her husband; she doesn't drink, smoke, curse; she has a strong faith in God. (She could even be a Republican!) But life for such a straight arrow is not easy. Her initially na´ve husband, Armand Walterson (Brian Patrick Gorman), tries to control her sexuality and her destiny, just like every other man, except Irving Klaw. How ironic that the only man who lets Bettie Page be herself is dragged before a government inquisition as a pornographer and a contributor to juvenile delinquency!
Though she never faced Sen. Estes Kefauver in real life, the confrontation between Kefauver and Page toward the end the play pretty much ends both their careers: Bettie's through fear of prosecution; Kefauver's through failure to arouse public outrage. Her employers, Paula and Irving Klaw -- "two nice Jewish kids from Brooklyn" -- are driven out of the business under threat of prison; Bettie disappears for 40 years for pretty much the same reason. Bettie discovers that being herself, that is, being a first-rate pin-up model, is too costly. For this she sacrifices her marriage and motherhood, her much-anticipated acting career, and finally even modeling for the camera. But she never believed she did anything wrong -- or anything important.
Bettie Page leaves a legacy of photos and a few films, partly preserved by Paula Klaw, in contravention of a court order to destroy all of the material she and her brother Irving created, and partly because those 1950s "camera club" amateurs saved many of her photos. It is said that the real Bettie Page never knew how popular she was until she was "rediscovered" in the 1990s. She is reported to be amused by all the fuss.
All this writer-producer-director Michael Flores portrays on-stage in a late-night show on a shoestring budget (his wife, Kat Southerland, runs the lights, sound and box office) with strictly local talent. Even if you have never heard of Bettie Page, you'll "get it" if you've seen this play. Tonight, as this subversive play closes, I reflect on how Michael Flores has accomplished something I find significant: not only his bait-and-switch -- sexy women swapped for a poignant story about real women's lives -- but in its subversion of feminism as it's generally understood in today's politically correct, anti-sex, sexual harassment-sensitive, climate.
Recreating eight years in the 1950s, with a cast of eight in 80 minutes, is a tall order, especially with no sets and minimal props. Are the players up to the challenge?
The answer is... yes.
Friends and Foes of Bettie Page
If you can forgive me a few comments on my own performance as Kefauver, here are my reflections on the professionals with whom I worked over the past nine months, which is how long I've been connected with "Bettie Page Uncensored":
Anna Shemeikka (Anna Virtanen), the foreign-born model who plays a foreign-born model, and creator of the newest role in the production, was added (I think) to give the story an international perspective. Shemeikka is a perfect foil for the other characters in the story. It doesn't matter if her character is real or a composite: the actress is grounded and confident, in pasties or in her fashion photo shoot. Shemeikka holds her own with the Senator from Tennessee -- she refuses to "play ball" -- while maintaining a respectful demeanor.
Lisa Hunter and Daniel Preble (Paul and Irving Klaw) are so good together they should take their repartee on the road. The Klaws were a brother-and-sister photo team, and real historical characters in the life of Bettie Page. In truth, Paula took as many photos as did Irving, who was the marketing genius behind their successful mail-order erotica business. Bettie Page was not just their favorite model, she was a friend with whom they socialized. The personal attraction between the Klaws and Bettie comes through in their every interaction, due in large part to the skills of Hunter and Preble.
Hunter plays Paula Klaw as a strong, competent and down-to-earth woman, who works for fun and profit with models posing for bondage photos. She never takes it all, or even her brother, very seriously -- until her brother is called to account. Preble (Irving) is a "card," as they would call him in the 50s, full of good humor and only coming down to earth when Kefauver brings him down. Preble plays Irving as a bit scatterbrained and not too strong-willed -- we can tell he's no fool, but the show is about women, after all. He is lovable, fun and direct. The hearing scene brings out Paula's sensitive side, as she comforts her distraught brother before, and especially after, the juvenile delinquency interrogation. Without a word, Hunter expresses a Shakespearean monolog of feeling.
We first see Armand Walterson (Brian Patrick Gorman) as a sexual neophyte, but he later turns into a 1950s husband who can't understand why his wife refuses to be controlled. When he is first discovered by Bettie, on a beach, he is so nervous at meeting this beautiful New York model that his hands shake when she asks him to take her picture. He can't even kiss her without her instruction. But, later on, knowing full well that she was a pin-up and bondage model when he met her, Armand tries to put an end to her career and make her "normal" -- by his standards. Gorman picks up on the innocence without being caricatured, and easily transitions in Act II to the husband who commands Bettie to change.
April Lynn Baker, as Roz Greenwood, is a ball of fire. She speaks in a rapid-fire, New York accent, which at times obscures her words. But her Roz radiates an uninhibited sexuality and free-spiritedness that is at once attractive and compelling. We can believe that this is how the real Roz Greenwood, a Klaw model about whom we know nothing, must have been. She's not as innocent as Bettie, not as girl-next-door, but Baker is totally convincing. Her rough life made Roz tough, but not too tough to love.
Without the "woman reporter," there might not be a Bettie Page story to go along with the photos. Lori Garrabrant as Tiffany Amber chronicles the pin-up legend's life while participating in it. She walks in and out of scenes, interviewing for exposition, commenting on the times, and summing up the story in the end. She, too, holds her own against an overbearing Kefauver, without being disrespectful. As a "working woman" Tiffany seems consigned to celibacy and safety, shielded from life behind her glasses and notepad.
But we catch occasional glimpses of a wilder woman who longs to let down her tightly pinned hair. Maybe she lives vicariously through the Klaw models, but she comes to love Bettie Page as an inspiration in her life. Garrabrant brings an intelligence, a wit, and a barely repressed sexuality, to a role that could have been played as a bitter, repressed prude. Indeed, Garrabrant finds humanity and humor in a potentially sterile stereotype.
As Sen. Estes Kefauver, I was given a role replete with opportunities to play a caricature of an ambitious, egocentric politician. I walked a tightrope over an abyss that beckoned with scenery-chewing in the one chasm and meanness and bombast in the other. I tried to avoid both extremes. I came to care about the Kefauver character -- why else would I trouble to acquire the Tennessee accent? -- and I tried not to let Kefauver become either a buffoon or an ogre. If I have succeeded, it is a tribute to my acting coach, Molli Benson. As I see him, Kefauver, while a political opportunist, believes he is doing the right thing. And there is no better way to understand human beings, in my estimation, than to understand that we seldom do things for a single purpose.
Consequently, while hoping to keep Kefauver human, I did play him with an ego. I think rounding him out that way makes his ultimate defeat not only more believable but more poignant. When marble statues are shattered, we really can't identify with them; when real humans are defeated, it touches something that each of us has experienced. I kept to that idea in the final (and, of course, mythical) confrontation with Bettie Page herself. Even with the odds, and officialdom, and even social mores against her, Bettie wins even as she loses. It is Kefauver who slinks offstage in the end, frustrated at failing to bring down his chief target. How humiliating that a U.S. Senator could be bested... by a pin-up model...!
But the play wouldn't work -- Kefauver and the other characters wouldn't be effective and affecting -- if we didn't care about the title character in the first place. Sarah Masters as Bettie Page is, in a word, brilliant. While the other actors have their own power, it is the electric charge conducted by the multi-talented Masters that carries the show and proves the playwright's point. Masters manages to balance the eroticism with the innocence of the pin-up icon. She reflects the duality of the social sense of sexuality in the 1950s. While Meyer may be old enough to remember the 1950s, Masters nails the mannerisms and manners of a Southern girl of the 1950s, seemingly through instinct alone. And they are great instincts.
Masters captures the true Bettie Page throughout: from her talent at flirting, to her unabashed and playful posing, to her innocence and her faith, to her passion for doing the right thing and being herself. And Masters portrays Bettie Page as an innocent caught in 1950s mores, struggling to balance love for her husband with love for her work and love for her God. She is struggling to be a modern woman, in fact. Even though Bettie loses, in the end, all but one of the things she most cares about -- her faith in God -- Masters makes the loss seem like a tiny victory, perhaps for Bettie, but also for women everywhere. Bettie inspires; Bettie says it's OK to be female, to be pretty, to be sensual and sensitive, and even to be bright. How subversive!
Bettie meets her future husband, Armand, on the beach, and takes the initiative in getting to know him. That would be quite unusual in the 1950s, but Masters makes you believe it. Bettie is introduced to the Klaws by her friend, Roz, and they are so taken by her simple beauty and unaffected personality that they have her pose for them immediately -- and she does so in the nude. Again, we believe it. And even though Bettie posed nude for camera clubs and Bunny Yeager, but not for the Klaws, this is the opportunity for Masters to show us how comfortable Bettie Page was with her tanned and athletic body -- a body that Masters shows to excellent effect through a rococo picture frame. She is "unashamed," which is a word seldom used in the 1950s.
Indeed, we see in Masters what made Bettie's physical attributes so unique, then as now, for what she is not: she is not a blonde; she does not have huge boobs; she is not "blessed" with a ten-year-old boy's butt -- instead, she is all woman. Bettie Page is as real a woman as she can be: seductive toward men, yet not threatening toward women. She could be your best friend, for man or woman.
In her two arguments with her husband, Masters shows two sides of Bettie Page: first, after an unexplained disappearance, she is the conciliatory wife who nevertheless does not apologize for being herself. Later, when Bettie wants to celebrate New Year's Eve and Armand refuses to endure the stares she attracts, she is the assertive woman, defending her life choices without playing the harpy. It is because Masters so masterfully synthesizes many characteristics into one persona that we believe her and care about Bettie Page. Later on, when Bettie sinks to her knees in the snow and prays to God to give her a reason to live, there is not a dry eye in the house -- including those eyes that have seen it countless times. If Masters can accomplish that, there's no telling how far she can go as an actor.
A Life of Bettie Page
Most lives don't mean anything, have no obvious purpose, unless viewed through a lens or at a certain angle. Here is where Flores as playwright is at his most subversive. The forceful performances of Sarah Masters and the others force us to identify with the struggle of women to control their destinies; we feel encouraged to root for Bettie Page. The play successfully evokes the 1950s and the relentless struggle required to achieve what liberation women have realized in our day. That's a pretty tall order for one play and eight actors. And it is a credit to the playwright and the actors that there is living flesh on the bones of this story.
Tonight "Bettie Page Uncensored" will close forever. I will miss it. The cast, crew and director have comprised a circle of friendship and support for a significant time. There will be a film, which will be a different look at the same story. Many of the current cast will be called on to recreate their roles. Through Flores's film I expect the subversive purpose of "Bettie Page Uncensored" will reach a larger and even wider audience.
The real Bettie Page still doesn't believe she did anything important as a model. "Bettie Page Uncensored," the show that baits us with babes, then sells a subversive story about freedom, demonstrates just how modest a pin-up icon can be about her own greatness. That is why her fans, including myself, ever-respectfully disagree.