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 Bunuel. 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.
Female Trouble chronicles the rise and fall of an American legend, straight from the studio of Jerry Springer (long before Springer existed). Transvestite Divine 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 her greatness. On Dawn’s journey into the badlands she is picked up hitch-hiking by a greasy motorcycle stud (also played by an out-of-drag Divine), who rapes her on a stained mattress. Dawn gets knocked up from her one day stand and turns to robbing banks to pay for the beast inside her. Later, she delivers daughter/eternal victim Taffy (the priceless Mink Stole). Of course, in Waters-land that delivery is hardly going to take place in the comforts of a hospital. No, the couch will do just fine, with mama Divine herself biting the umbilical cord.
Dawn feels like a mini-celebrity in the local salon and marries a good-for-nothing, power tool obsessed hairdresser named Gator. Gator’s Aunt Ida (queenly Edith Massey) so wants Gator to be a homosexual: “Gator I’d be so proud of you if you was a fag. Heterosexuals are so boring.” That damn Dawn is just ruining Aunt Ida’s dream of having a fag nephew. Here is the all-American family dream served up Waters style. Addams Family Values are child’s play by comparison.
Of course, with that dream comes Dawn’s decidedly unromantic life of crime, assisted by the salon owning couple, the Dashers (David Lochary & Mary Vivian Pearce). Dawn and Gator inevitably divorce and Dawn’s hatred for Taffy only increases. The Dashers offer Dawn relief by getting her addicted to liquid eyeliner, and convincing her that she is bound for the greatness found in a life of beauty and crime.
Like the old adage says “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and after Aunt Ida throws acid in Dawn’s face, the Dashers concoct a nightclub act with Dawn as the glamorous main attraction, more beautiful now than ever before. Watch with amazement as Dawn jumps up and down on a trampoline right before your very eyes.
But goddamit, there are people around Dawn that seem to want to interfere with her shot at fame and fortune. So, Dawn chops off Ida’s hand with an axe and murders Taffy when she joins those bald headed freaks who sing at the airport.
Female Trouble explodes in a “show must go on” mass murder, with Dawn replacing James Cagney in the electric chair. Waters and company seem to be literally bouncing off the walls here. The first time I watched this film, I was drained by the time the credits rolled. Female Trouble is just so much damned fun that I have to disagree with Dawn Davenport about Christmas. I received this treasure as a Christmas gift (it was on my list) and it made for a hell of a unique holiday, proving that like beauty, Christmas is in the eye of the beholder.