Tag Archives: Divine

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. 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)

CAPSULE: LUST IN THE DUST (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Lainie Kazan, Geoffrey Lewis,

PLOT: Gunfighters and dancehall girls converge on the dusty town of Chili Verde in search of buried treasure.

Still from Lust in the Dust (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not really weird; it’s only the presence of cult icon Divine, matched up with eccentric director Bartel, that makes the movie a curiosity.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of people who love Lust in the Dust, and a lot of people who hate it, and frankly, I can’t completely understand either camp. This light Western spoof looks good considering its low budget, features decent performances by an oddball cast, and breezes by at a brisk 84 minutes. The comedy is often labored, but everyone seems to be working hard to entertain you: the flick earns the same sort of goodwill you’d give a guy at a party who delivers an involved joke that he’s obviously worked hard at memorizing, even though the punchline isn’t that funny. It is easier to understand the position of those who hate it than those who champion it: their reaction probably comes more from disappointment than anything. The idea of Paul Bartel, fresh off the “bad taste” cult hit Eating Raoul, directing Divine in a Western with Lust in the title suggests a raunchy and outrageous movie that never materializes. This movie never rises above the level of “naughty,” and its comic sensibilities are more silly than transgressive. On the other hand, it does have a combination of quirk and competence that keeps it watchable, and one scene that’s nearly a knockout—when Lainie Kazan sings “Let Me Take You South of My Border” using a fresh corpse as a choreography aid. Kazan, as a conniving madame with a bustline and a sneer that both look made for Russ Meyer movies, steals the camp spotlight away from Divine, who is too tame in her role as a wandering lady with a penchant for accidentally crushing men with her thighs. Tab Hunter’s steely-eyed Man With No Name clone (the studly “Abel Wood”—groan) is forgettable, though not as forgettable as Cesar Romero’s kindly Mexican friar. Geoffrey Lewis, on the other hand (he’s one of those “I’m sure I know him—but from where?” actors) impresses as a ruthless but well-educated scripture quoting bandit leading a ridiculously multi-ethnic gang of desperadoes. All in all, Lust is OK, a predictable spoof with some chuckles—a résumé which makes it hard to understand why some people adore it. I suppose the Lust-lovers must all be Divine fans, although this performance (which would have been forgotten if a woman had been cast) is almost conventional by the outré crossdresser’s standards. You do get to see Divine’s rump, however, which I hope was not a clinching factor for anyone.

The title “Lust in the Dust” comes from an unflattering nickname given to David O. Selznick’s steamy 1946 oater Duel in the Sun, which this movie partly parodies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Bartel] seems convinced that simply combining Divine, Kazan and Hunter in the same room will create a fissionable comic mass. Before he shut the door, he should have also thrown in a screenplay.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Keith Stone. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

Several years ago I came across a review of John Waters Pink Flamingos (1972) in which the reviewer made the tiresome claim that it wasn’t even a “real” movie (while reviewing it in a ‘movie’ review column).  Such is the power of John Waters to provoke.

Waters admirers seem to be divided into two camps; pre-and post Hairspray (1988 ), although it really was Polyester (1981) that ushered in the new “Waters with a budget.”  Waters certainly lost two inimitable “stars” in Divine and Edith Massey.  While he has never lost his edge, and A Dirty Shame (2005) is a good example of that, Waters post-Polyester films are not mired as steeply in that idiosyncratic Waters’ universe.

John Waters is as innovative a director as Luis Buñuel.  John Waters is as important a director as Orson Welles. John Waters is as true blooded Americana as John Ford.  John Waters defines the word auteur like few others, creating a highly personal look at the world.  It was that personal vision which brought his following to him, and not the other way around.  When John Waters started making films, he did not develop a distribution strategy nor did he factor in who his target audience might be. He simply made visionary art.  Of course, many argue the value of his vision, but it’s the lack of pretense in Waters that is unsettling.  Throughout his body of work, he has been consistently stubborn in his refusal to cater to populist notions regarding pedestrian definitions of art and entertainment.  That said, one finds Waters to be a remarkably narrative director and the 1975 Female Trouble may be his most assured narrative masterpiece.

Still from Female Trouble (1975)Female Trouble chronicles the rise and fall of an American legend, straight from the studio of Jerry Springer (long before Springer existed). Transvestite plays quintessential white trash Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport.  Dawn hates school, her parents, and Christmas, so she can’t be all bad, right?  She’s bad ass enough to run away from home and the parents who simply cannot recognize Continue reading FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)