DIRECTED BY: John Waters
FEATURING: Ricki Lake, Divine, Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Deborah Harry, Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, Mink Stole, , John Waters
PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.
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. 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)