Pink Flamingos (1972) made a lightning rod name in the Midnight Movie circuit. He followed up with the last of his underground films—Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)—to create a trilogy like no other. Pink Flamingos had a budget of $10,000 and grossed nearly $200,000 in its initial run. This enabled budgets of $25,000 for Female Trouble and $65,000 for Desperate Living. Yet, these movies did something far more than just make money—they paved the eventual path for a (somewhat) legitimized John Waters.
Polyester (1981) had a whopping budget of $300, 000, was the first Waters film to garner an MPAA rating of “R” (his previous work had been unrated or slapped with an “X”), and moved Waters’ basic locations from garages, shanty towns and trailer parks to the suburbs. Working for the first time in 35 MM (and with good sound), Waters’ utilizes his resources to superb effect, acerbically penetrating the American dream’s facade. He did not get there by himself. Like Picasso or, Waters steals well. In Polyester, he further enriches the formidable melodrama tradition of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s influence was first discernible in Desperate Living, although Waters’ films are more forthright (taking nothing at all away from Sirk). Here, with the small town environment at his disposal, Waters models his film’s composition on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). He filters that influence, along with bits stolen from , through his own postmodern sensibilities.
In Polyester Waters invades the suburbs with unwanted minorities, social deviants, anarchists, freaks, and immigrants who threaten WASP property values (one wonders what kind of rise Waters could get out of Donald Trump’s hairpiece). That eclecticism echoes in the casting. This would also be the last film for Dreamland regulars Edith Massey and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with Divine and Mink Stole, they are cast opposite 50s beefcake (Waters’ nod to Sirk’s use of Rock Hudson). Divine’s performances were progressively improving, and Hunter is a professional “B”-actor; the pair are beautifully juxtaposed against personality driven “Z” amateurs. Hunter exudes middle-aged poster boy charisma and delivers his lines with self-conscious precision (in sharp contrast, Waters always struggled with Massey’s inability to remember her dialogue).
Naturally, Waters had to have fun with such a lavish train set, creating a Castle-like gimmick with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff-cards. Polyester was the first Waters film I saw in a theater (at a midnight showing), and although it certainly holds up in home video formats, it is naturally diminished when it loses the cinema-as-participatory-theater angle. In the original experience, 10 numbers were flashed across the screen throughout the film. After scratching the accompanying card number, the entire theater was awash in the smell of roses, farts, Airplane glue, pizza, gasoline, a skunk, a gas oven, leather upholstery, dirty shoes, and aerosol air freshener.
The film itself is the lushly-plotted saga of Francine Fishpaw (Divine), whose relationship to her creator bears an uncanny kinship to Charles Schultz’s sadism towards the forever put-upon Charlie Brown. Of course, in a Hollywood-minded film, after going through a cycle of purgatory, Francine would eventually become the empowered woman. Fortunately, no such luck here, and Francine’s perennially downtrodden state makes for what may be Divine’s first genuine character performance.
Poor Francine’s luck is so bad that she is even made to look like a loser by Edith Massey. While Francine is trying to live the life of a good Catholic neighbor (“I’m a good Christian woman”), her sleaze of a hubby Elmer (David Samson, in an Ernest Angley toupee) runs a porn theater. The local Bible-thumpers make daily life a living hell for our poor heroine, picketing her and mocking her gluttony, alcoholism and family. Worse, Elmer is having a sordid affair with his secretary-cum-motel-companion Sandra (Mink Stole, thrusting on all cylinders). Unknown to Francine, her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing addict with a foot fetish who transforms into the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper. Adding to Fishpaw’s woes is her slut of a daughter Lu-Lu (the delightfully over-the-top Mary Garlington) who hates school, hates mom, and hates the baby inside of her (Lu-Lu, meet coat hanger). She only loves her white trash beau, who is about to wind up dead.
As the suddenly rich beneficiary of an inheritance, Edith Massey wrecks Waters’ train set, stealing every scene she is in. Mary Vivian Pearce (again playing a nun), Susan Lowe (looking very different than she did in Desperate Living), and Mueller all appear in cameos. Jean Hill (also in Living) shows up in a vignette as a bus-driving Baptist out to kick sinner ass.
As Todd Tomorrow, a name straight out of a comic book, Tab Hunter arrives as Divine’s penis envy personified. He is merely a temporary pass out of purgatory, and rest assured something incestuous is literally afoot. Even with its (comparatively) large budget, Polyester is still securely within what we believe to be “Waters’ universe,” exhibiting his raw gift for nihilism (albeit stylishly hip nihilism).
Seven years passed before Waters made another film. Even more shocking than the long absence was his return with a PG rated family film: Hairspray (1988). Hairspray verified Waters’ gift for nostalgia. The fact that it was eventually made into a Broadway musical, and then remade in 2007 as a movie musical starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, and Michelle Pfeiffer, cements Waters as an authentic all-American success story. Of course, there were a few fans who deemed him a traitor, but even their protests were subdued. Waters sentimental pining for the past had always been present and, in hindsight, his move to the mainstream now seeed inevitable, as opposed to unfathomable. After twenty-five years, Waters had fully emerged from garage filmmaking. What was not to celebrate?
Waters hones in on the early sixties, before the Beatles, Stones, Doors, JFK, MLK, RFK, Vietnam, revolution, and Charles Manson. This is the 60s of Chubby Checker (AKA, the recycled 50s); but, with segregation, revolution is bubbling. The beatniks (Rick Ocasek and Pia Zadora) are right around the corner, but the counterculture is not quite here yet, and Waters’ approach is congenial, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Ricki Lake stars as Tracy Turnblad. She is Waters’ answer to Rocky Balboa, competing against evil queen Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) on the Corny Collins Show (with Shawn Thompson subbing for Dick Clark). Amber even comes equipped with evil parents (Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry in a beehive), but they are no match for Tracy’s parents: Edna (Divine) and Wilbur (Jerry Stiller).
Divine is simply marvelous, in what would tragically be her last role (she died of respiratory failure from sleep apnea shortly after Hairspray was released). Her role fits her like a second skin. As Waters muses, “there are still people today who see the film, unaware that Edna is being played by a man.” Waters keeps in the spirit of James Whale‘s advice of not spoiling it for those not in on the joke.
The drag tradition stuck, and Harvey Fierstein played Edna on Broadway. In the 2007 remake (directed by Adam Shankman), Travolta (in a fat drag suit) brings his Saturday Night Fever (1977) credentials to the role. Divine proved so commanding and influential in her part that she even became the model for Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Perhaps even more appealing than legitimized Waters is legitimized Divine. Who would have ever thunk it?
Fitzpatrick is almost as much fun, clearly relishing naive bitchery. Her enthusiasm is contagious and, despite her position as antagonist, we actually find ourselves rooting for her.
In Hairspray, Waters’ cloaks his subversion in a glossy, cartoon sheen. The freaks emerge triumphant and make the status quo seem hopelessly archaic. The movie’s success was gradual. It did moderately well at the box office upon its theatrical release, but became a bona fide cult hit in the home video market. Some critics prefer the 2007 musical, which should be seen more as a celebratory evolution than an official remake.
Waters absorbed the fruits of his labors, taking a two-year break after Hairspray and returning with Cry-Baby, which we will cover next week, hopefully taking us to A Dirty Shame (2004). I will try to contain the Waters retrospective to three parts, but promises can sometimes be futile.