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A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

Part I of the John Waters retrospective is here.

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 and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with and , 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).

Polyester scratch n' sniff cardNaturally, 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 Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

CAPSULE: CRY-BABY (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Amy Locane, , Polly Bergen

PLOT: A “drape” with the ability to cry a single tear on command falls for a “square” girl in 1950s Baltimore.

Still from Cry-baby (1990)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you stacked John Waters’ movies with the weirdest on top and most mainstream on the bottom, there’s a good chance Cry-Baby would be making up the foundation.

COMMENTS: John Waters’ first movie after the 1988 death of his muse continued his retreat from the trashy outrageousness of the Pink Flamingos era into the nostalgic PG-13 rated camp represented by this and Hairspray. Cry-Baby is a nostalgic, light-hearted parody of 1950s juvenile delinquent movies, with a couple of musical production numbers thrown in almost as an afterthought. The plot is a simple star-crossed riff on West Side Story/Grease, with sexy Amy Locane as the good girl longing to be bad and Depp as the type of sensitive hood that made teen girls in poodle skirts feel things they had never felt before.

As usual in a Waters movie, the casting is half the fun. At the time, Depp was a small screen teen idol whose career arc showed little promise. Although cast because of his heartthrob status—his campy line deliveries as Cry-Baby (which sometimes sound like Elvis acting at his best) don’t allow him to really stretch his talents—Depp’s presence in a John Waters movie did telegraph his intent to gamble on oddball roles, and made casting directors look at him in a different light. As far as supporting players and cameos go, look for real-life bad girl Traci Lords as a pouty teen; Susan Tyrrell and as Cry-Baby’s reprobate roadhouse grandparents; Troy Donahue, , , Joey Heatherton, and former brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst as the older generation of drapes; and as a “hateful guard.” Ricki Lake, as a 50s version of an unfit teen mom, is piggish (“I’m so happy all knocked-up!”), rather than sympathetic as intended, but little-known Kim McGuire (or at least her makeup) makes quite an impression as the aptly-named Hatchet Face. There are so many eccentric minor players jostling for time onscreen that there’s no time for real characterization, which keeps Cry-Baby faithful to the movies it’s parodying, at least.

As a lightly magical realist comedy, Cry-Baby is fairly successful, although of course many Waters fans will miss the nasty grit of the trashpile 1970s movies. In 1990 the Eisenhower-era satirical targets are stale, but there are some amusing moments in the script, topped by an orphanage that’s run like an animal shelter, with children behind glass waiting to be adopted. “She’s Caucasian,” drawls the patrician orphanage matron in regards to a darling eight-year-old girl playing house in her cell, “but that’s about all I can recommend.” In terms of oddnesses, look for a baby cradle festooned with deaths heads, an easily spooked cow, and a “helpful” sewer rat.

Like all of Waters’ post-Hairspray work, Cry-Baby lost money at the box office. Waters regained his “R” rating with his next film, 1994’s Serial Mom, and abandoned his brief experiment in family-friendly entertainment. Depp, of course, went on to greater weirdness, starring next in ‘s Edward Scissorhands before moving on to Certified Weird performances in Dead Man (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“John Waters at his most accessible — which is still really odd.”–Rob Thomas, Capital Times

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)