Now that Criterion has given Multiple Maniacs a restorative spit shine for a recent BluRay release, there aren’t many unsung movies left featuring a performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived. Starring roles from Divine are especially scarce, particularly ones outside the John Waters oeuvre. That’s what makes Lust in the Dust so tempting as a potential off-road gem. Divine stars in a comedy directed by the ever-charming Paul Bartel (Eating Raul, Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) and no one ever talks about it? How could that be? The answer, obviously, is that the movie is a bit of a stinker and would likely have been forgotten by time completely if it weren’t for Divine’s name on the poster. Worse yet, it feels like a dilution & cheapening of the John Waters brand, which already suffers from being treated like ironic kitsch instead of what it truly is: a collection of the greatest films ever made. Waters was asked to direct Lust in the Dust, but declined because he did not pen the script. Frequent Waters collaborator Edith Massey was cast as a sleazy bartender (not a stretch for her) but died before filming began. Divine stars opposite Tab Hunter, her onscreen rival/lover in Waters’s Polyester. The film also arrived in the seven-year gap between Polyester & Hairspray, which makes me wonder if Divine’s departure from the Dreamlanders crew to pursue projects like Lust in the Dust & her disco career means there were other John Waters projects in the works that were derailed in the meantime. Lust in the Dust isn’t without its occasional charms, but it feels like a huge roadblock that likely prevented better art from seeing the light of day.
Speaking of daylight, Lust in the Dust is a textbook demonstration of the horrors of day drag. Shot in the sun-drenched California desert, the film is a bawdy comedy masquerading as a cheapie Western. Divine is tasked to flop sweat her way through dust-coated comedy routines as stale as the cowboy backdrop that flavors them. A thin story about buried treasure, bandits, and bar fights drags its corpse across the desert sand as playful music continually elbows the audience as a reminder that “This is fun! So funny!” A few of the gags do work, but they’re the rare exception to the rule. I was particularly tickled by Divine’s tendency to crush the head of any man that goes down on her. Her costar Lannie Kazan (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) also gets in a few great one-liners like, “Freeze, hombre, or I’ll be wearing your asshole like a garter,” that remind you that Bartel is usually a super sharp, crass wit. Most of the bits fall dead flat, though. Divine drunkenly falling off a donkey, the small town they raise hell in being called Chile Verde, Divine bashfully pretending she doesn’t want to be gang raped: Lust in the Dust’s major failure is that it isn’t nearly funny enough to justify its own indulgences as an irreverent comedy. Waters was smart to decline the opportunity to direct the picture himself and I’d never want to see my favorite filmmaker tackle something as tired & pedestrian as a Western, but you could bet that if he did the result would be far more energetic & genuinely humorous. Here, the zaniness feels forced and Divine feels weighed down by being tied to an unfunny script instead of being let loose to cause havoc as the no-holds-barred filth monster she truly was.
Lust in the Dust is only a must-see for Divine completists & the morbidly curious. It’s difficult to imagine Western-friendly audiences getting anything more out of it than I did, coming from the perspective of a Waters devotee. Unless you desperately need to see Divine & Tab Hunter share the screen one last time and your copy of Polyester is damaged or missing, I’d advise you to stay as far away as you can manage. It’s best to keep the better memories of Divine alive in our minds than to dilute them with this labored, unfunny dreck. The same goes with the typically wonderful Paul Bartel, really, but it hurts much less to see a dilution of his divinity.
And just so this isn’t a total waste of time, let’s all smile in wonder at the only good thing that came out of this picture: this picture.