It’s almost inarguable that the most iconic performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, was her role as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos. John Waters may have later scored a wider cultural impact with Hairspray (his last collaboration with Divine before her death), but if you ask anyone to describe Divine as a persona, it’s the yellow hair, red flamenco dress, and curbside dog shit of Pink Flamingos that most readily defines her in the public conscience. As gloriously filthy as Pink Flamingos is within the John Waters pantheon, though, it’s not the most fully illustrative showcase for Divine’s talents as an onscreen presence. Babs is a kind of static constant throughout Pink Flamingos—hilarious, but unchanging in her filthy, filthy ways. It’s that film’s follow-up, Female Trouble, that really allows the full spectrum of Divine’s version of defiant American femininity to shine. In Female Trouble, Divine charts the moral corrosion of a high school teen turned mass murderer over a decade’s worth of increasingly despicable criminal acts. Pink Flamingos might be Divine’s most recognizable achievement in establishing a tone & defining her look, but Dawn Davenport is her greatest creation as a cinematic performer.
After signing the film’s theme song herself (a preview of her disco career to come), Divine begins Female Trouble as one of the 1960s hair-hoppers Waters lovingly profiled in Hairspray. Dawn Davenport is a bratty teenage delinquent. She smokes in school bathrooms, sneaks eating meatball sandwiches during class lectures, and responds to concerns about schoolwork with sentiments like, “Fuck homework. Who cares if we fail?” This attitude sets her up for failure at a traditional American lifestyle, something that becomes no longer sustainable after her parents refuse to buy the one Christmas present she demands because, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” After destroying the Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau of her parents’ home like Godzilla tearing through Tokyo, Dawn Davenport hits the open road as a teenage runaway. She attempts a mundane life that does not suit her: raising children, waiting tables, gossiping at the beauty salon. The most alive Dawn appears as a young adult woman is when she’s sweatily stripping as a go-go dancer and abusing her hyperactive daughter, both verbally and physically. The first half of Female Trouble is a grimy portrait of American femininity, one frustrated with the prison of boredom & tedium that plagues well-behaved women, especially single mothers. The increasingly violent crimes she commits throughout the film are selfish, hateful, and morally grotesque, but they’re also a political rejection of traditionalist gender roles she’s expected to conform to at all ages in her perversely American life.
The poster for Female Trouble “warns” of (read: promises) “scenes of extraordinary perversity,” the kinds of onscreen stunts both Divine & Waters were largely known for, if not only because of the shit-eating stunt that concludes Pink Flamingos. When Dawn Davenport introduces herself to strangers in the film, she explains “I’m a thief & a shitkicker and I’d like to be famous.” She achieves this fame the way only a thief & a shitkicker would: by impressing the public with the daringness of her crimes. As an adult criminal, Dawn finds wealthy, erudite patrons (David Lochary & Mary Vivian Pearce) who fund her criminal activities for the artistry that they truly are, fanatically believing that “crime enhances one’s beauty.” It’s an ingenious setup that provides Divine a stage to perform various criminal stunts, including smashing her overgrown child (a deranged Mink Stole) with a dining room chair, warring with her leather fetishist neighbor (Edith Massey) to the point of imprisoning her in a birdcage & axing off her hand, and breaking prison rules by entering a long-term lesbian relationship while locked up. In-story, this absurdist crime spree climaxes when a scarred-up Dawn with a protopunk haircut locks a literally captive audience into a crowded nightclub for her Cavalcade of Filth routine and fires a gun directly at them, indiscriminately. If crime enhances beauty, this is Dawn Davenport at her most gorgeous, something she announces upfront in the line “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t even stand it myself.” The bizarre truth is that the biggest stunt in the film occurs long before the Cavalcade of Filth, though, when Dawn Davenport is still a teenage delinquent. Hitchhiking away from her destroyed parents’ home on Christmas morning, Dawn is picked up by a monstrous drunk played by Glenn Milstead (out of his Divine drag). Upstaging the earlier stunt where Divine is raped by a giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, Divine effectively rapes herself in this scene. The details are horrendous: a roadside mattress, shit-stained tighty whities, felching. It’s a truly hideous display, a stunt that could only be topped by watching Divine perform mundane domestic work in later titles like Polyester & Hairspray. It’s this hitchhiking sequence where Divine truly outdoes herself (by literally doing herself, appropriately).
Desperate Living is my personal favorite John Waters film, but it’s one that Divine backed out of before production. I’m sure she could have only improved the film with her immaculately trashy presence, but I doubt even that performance would have bested the all-encompassing showcase Dawn Davenport afforded her. Divine’s performances as Babs Johnson, Edna Turblad, and Francine Fishpaw are all flawless, iconic filth, but they only afford her one comedic angle per picture. Dawn Davenport, on the other hand, allows Divine to transform from teenage reprobate/petty criminal to full-blown Charles Manson maniac in 90 wild minutes, taunting her audience from the perch of an electric chair with the speech, “I’d like to thank all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspaper and watch me on the television news shows. Without all of you, my career would have never gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for and it is you that I die for.” Female Trouble affords Divine a stage to perform her most gloriously fucked up stunts on celluloid, then directly comments on our fascination with those wicked deeds and with crime as entertainment in general. More importantly, though, it allows her to perform the full spectrum of American femininity as, to borrow the title of a Lifetime movie, Wife-Mother-Murderer in the post-hippie grime of the mid-1970s. Dawn Davenport is multiple generations & evolutions of the misbehaving woman, a perfect template for Divine to perform a full floor show of varying proto-punk looks & sneering femme attitudes. She may have starred in a few better movies, but few performances ever served her better as a top bill entertainer & the center of attention. Besides, where else are you going to watch Divine fuck herself? It’s impossible to overvalue the novelty of that experience.