By John Baggett
PSDC Movie Dude
Note: I kinda spoil this movie, but I don’t think it’ll diminish your enjoyment of the film at all.
In December, NBC will be airing a live production of the musical, Hairspray, following the recent successes of Grease Live and The Wiz. I’m actually excited about the production, as I’m a big fan of the show (and I’m not just saying that because a friend of mine co-directed a production of it last summer). What does this have to do with anything? Well, the connection is that the play was based on a 1988 film of the same name from writer/director, John Waters. And to this day, it remains the only one of his films you could comfortably watch with your family. (Maybe, Serial Mom too.)
Waters would laugh about the success of his film, saying he could imagine a family saying, “We loved Hairspray! Let’s rent another John Waters film!” Only for them to be immediately horrified by what they might see. Waters is often named the Pope of Trash or the Prince of Puke, a man whose career began as a guerilla hippie filmmaker in Baltimore in the 1960s that led to him being one of the kings of the midnight movie in the 1970s, before he went legit(ish) in the 80s. He rose to infamy with his 1972 film, Pink Flamingos, which made him a cult figure and his company of actors, named Dreamlanders, stars (sort of), especially the 300 pound drag queen tour de force known as Divine. Pink Flamingos may be the more obvious choice to cover, but I’m not going down the easy path. This week I’m examining the Flamingos follow up, the 1974 comedy, Female Trouble.
Female Trouble is the story of Dawn Davenport (Divine), as told in various stages of her life. We first meet her as a troubled teen in 1960 that is more interested in getting cha-cha heels for Christmas then she is her schoolwork. She and her two best friends, Concetta (Cookie Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh) cut class, threaten other students, and would rather be expelled than be in school for another female. Besides, Dawn doesn’t need school, she’s gonna be famous one day.
On Christmas morning, after her parents don’t get her the cha-cha heels she asked for, Dawn attacks her parents, pinning her mother under the Christmas tree, and running away from home. After leaving home, she hitches a ride with a man named Earl Peterson (also played by Divine), who takes her to the city dump for some sexy time. Naturally, said sexy time leads to Dawn getting pregnant and Earl refuses to help, telling her to go fuck herself.
Dawn ends up being a pretty terrible mother, unable to control her daughter Taffy (played as a child by Hilary Taylor and as a adolescent/teenager by Mink Stole). Dawn’s idea of discipline includes chaining Taffy to her bed and beating her with a car aerial. She confides in her friends Concetta and Chicklette that she doesn’t know how to control Taffy, even though she is not setting a good example, byu harboring her two friends every time they go out stealing.
Dawn’s life makes a change for the better when she ends up in the Les Lipstick Salon, run by beauty experts Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce). She impresses the Dashers, who allow her to become their new customer and she even catches the eye of Gater (Michael Potter), a hairdresser who lives with his aunt Ida (Edith Massey). Ida refuses to accept that Gater is straight and continues to try and set him up with nice young men. But, Gater has eyes for Dawn and the two soon marry.
Wedded life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for Dawn, as she and Gater are having some problems in the bedroom. The two split, but with the Dashers helping Dawn rise to fame, they help her make Gater’s life rough, even firing him. Dawn becomes a sensation, even after a violent attack by Ida, who throws acid in her face, and becomes a superstar that mixes murder with beauty and art. This career move helps lead her to the biggest achievement in her career – the electric chair.
Now, part of the reason that I picked this film over Pink Flamingos is that I think it’s a better movie. I don’t dislike Pink Flamingos, in fact I might cover it and the other entry in Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” Desperate Living, at later dates. I just feel like if it didn’t end in Divine eating dog shit, I don’t know how well remembered the movie might be. Female Trouble shows Waters getting better as a writer and a director. It has all of the trashiness of Flamingos but with a slightly more cohesive story.
Even John Waters has called it his favorite of his early films. In the commentary, he described it as a vehicle for Divine and it really shows. He (and I use that pronoun as Divine was a drag queen, not transgender) was always a performer that gave his all and after his passing, Waters’ films never really felt the same.
Female Trouble is the kind of anarchic filmmaking that we don’t see very often these days. It’s 42 years old now but still packs as much of a punch as I’m sure it did back then. If you’ve never seen a Waters film, I definitely think you should start with Pink Flamingos, but this also isn’t a bad place to start. It’s funnier, more shocking, and more in your face than the “raunchy comedies” coming out today. It’s a brash slice of cinema that was everything it ever set out to be.
Now, where are my goddamn cha-cha heels?
Rating: **** (out of 5)