John Waters, the notorious cinematic provocateur and curator of all things camp, has had a career that is long but not prolific. In 40 years he's made only a dozen features, none of them major hits -- his highest grosses are around $8 million -- and none of them award-winners. Yet everyone knows who he is. Plenty of people would actually recognize the man himself, which is pretty extraordinary for a director. Christopher Nolan, Brett Ratner, and Robert Zemeckis are all hugely successful filmmakers, but could you pick any of them out of a lineup?
Waters' place in American culture obviously goes beyond his actual filmic output, and his public persona -- that of a devilish, giddy agent of mayhem -- suggests he is perfectly content to be where he is. Still, you have to wonder if part of him wouldn't have preferred mainstream, "normal" success. It's tempting to view his Hairspray, released 21 years ago this week, as an attempt to go legit: his first (and so far only) PG-rated film, devoted to squeaky-clean early-1960s teenagers, focused on silliness like hairstyles and dance moves, with a non-controversial underlying theme of racial equality. His commentary on the DVD never addresses the topic, but his fans can spot his subversive imprimatur all over the film. Waters didn't go mainstream here. He just found a way to hide his radicalness.
There had been a seven-year break between Waters' previous film, Polyester, and Hairspray -- by far the longest hiatus of his career. Polyester managed to get an R rating instead of an X (a first for Waters), and the actors who usually made up his ensemble, known as the Dreamlanders, mostly played minor roles instead of the leads. (Divine and Edith Massey were the exceptions.) Hairspray took this flirtation with the mainstream even further, toning the content down to a PG level and relegating all the Dreamlanders except Divine either to the background or out of the picture altogether. And Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, the plus-size drag queen who achieved infamy in Waters' Pink Flamingos for eating dog feces, wanted to play both the mother and daughter in Hairspray (he'd done something similar in Female Trouble), but Waters nixed the idea in favor of a safer choice.
That was Ricki Lake, an unknown 19-year-old who responded to a casting call for, as she remembers it, "fat girls who could dance." She played Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen in 1963 who watches the local dance-party program The Corny Collins Show every afternoon and dreams of being one of its featured dancers. The film is only half-over when Tracy appears to have gotten everything she could want: a spot on the show, local fame, and even a hunky boyfriend in Corny Collins heartthrob Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard).
But then there is the matter of racial integration. Corny Collins lets blacks dance on the show only once a month, on Negro Day (which Waters says he got directly from the teen dance show he watched as a teenager), and Tracy has befriended black kids at school. Like many of her young peers, she sees no reason why whites and blacks shouldn't be able to dance together. Soon there are protests and mini-riots, with Tracy being sent to a reform school and the governor having to intervene to get things straightened out.
So where is Waters' trademark outrageousness in all of this? Hidden, mostly. I think the scene where mean girl Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) has a juicy zit popped by her mother is Waters' way of reminding us that he's still the same old gross-out king. But if pimple-squeezing doesn't hold a candle to poop-eating, at least there's some danger in Hairspray's subtler themes.
Racial integration wasn't controversial in 1988, of course, but it was in Baltimore in 1963, when Waters was a teenager who, by his own account, hung out mostly with black kids, went to black dances, and listened to black music. His glossy, campy version of the civil rights movement barely hints at its violent realities; he prefers to focus on how absurd it was that it was even necessary. Racist whites are portrayed as buffoons in Hairspray, including the hilarious moment when the prissy Prudence Pingleton (Joann Havrilla) wanders into the black part of town and is terrified by everything she sees. Or what about the outlandish scene of white panic when black community leader Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) and her daughter Inez (Cyrkle Milbourne) handcuff themselves to the governor and inundate him with kisses on the cheek until he agrees to their demands?
Waters won't even give the time of day to the racist perspective. This is a time-honored satirical device that basically says, "Your opinion is so stupid I'm not even going to bother picking it apart."
Blacks aren't just equal with whites in Waters' view, though -- when it comes to music and dancing, they're superior. The dance steps featured on Corny Collins are laughably tame, with everyone moving in unison, the clunk-clunk of their feet audible above the music on the soundtrack. (Adding to the humor, naturally, is the fact that the old-fashioned parents get worked up even over dancing this boring.) But at the black dance halls, the moves are overtly sexual: women bend over, huge smiles on their faces, while men gyrate inches away from their hind quarters. The atmosphere at these gatherings is decidedly more raucous, more freewheeling, more ... fun. Hairspray lumps race and sex together and, just as Pleasantville would do a decade later, posits that if you resist ANY kind of modernization -- whether it's racial integration or sexual promiscuity -- you're a narrow-minded fuddy-duddy. The only enlightened people are the ones who embrace an "anything goes" philosophy.
Reasonable people could disagree with the notion that all old-fashioned ideas are automatically wrong. Sexual puritanism might not be healthy, but surely there's something to be said for caution, even monogamy. At the very least, you can be "enlightened" without also being a libertine -- Waters' lifelong endorsement of hedonism notwithstanding.
Whatever Waters' intentions were with Hairspray, it paid off with mainstream success ... eventually. It made only $8 million at the box office, but it developed a cult following on home video and was re-launched, in 2002, as a hugely successful Broadway musical, which was then turned into a hit film -- a film based on a musical based on another film. Waters' next movie after Hairspray was Cry-Baby, another tame comedy (rated PG-13), this time set in the 1950s. It got the Broadway treatment after Hairspray became a phenomenon. It got mixed reviews and closed in three months. You can't make lightning strike twice.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Hairspray was released, 21 years ago this week, on Feb. 26, 1988 ...
• The other new releases that day were Frantic (with Harrison Ford), Bloodsport (Jean-Claude Van Damme), and the River Phoenix film A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. The top movie at the box office was Good Morning, Vietnam.
• Daytime soap operas' first interracial marriage took place the same day on General Hospital.
• The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Expose's "Seasons Change," soon to be followed by George Michael's "Father Figure" and Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."
• Two days earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Hustler magazine after Jerry Falwell sued it for defamation. This was good news for pornographers and satirists everywhere.
• No one knew it, but one of the film's stars, Glenn Milstead -- better known as Divine -- had only nine days to live before he would die of heart failure.
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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where you can't stop the beat.