Dawn Davenport as the Ultimate Divine Showcase

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2018

Last year, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. This year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2018 excursion, our second year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

John Waters’s Period Pieces as Punk Culture History Lessons

One of the most fascinating aspects of early John Waters pictures like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos is how at home they feel with punk culture despite being released well before punk even had a name. Waters’s early 70s freak shows arrived at a time when feel-good Free Love vibes dominated the counterculture, feeling completely out of step in their amoral nastiness & gleeful shock value chaos. The leopard print & leather costuming, bright hair dye, old cars, and return to straightforward rock n’ roll (as opposed to the era’s psychedelic folk & bloated arena rock) of Waters’s early films telegraphed & possibly influenced a lot of what the punk subculture would come to accept as identifiers & badges of dishonor in the years to follow. It’d be easy to think of Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos as being ahead of their time in that way, but a lot of those signifiers of tackiness & bad taste were actually deliberately old-fashioned & out of style holdovers from the 50s & 60s. Waters’s freak show atrocities were poor, degenerate weirdos, conspicuously out of step with the times & repurposing fashion from their parents’ closets and secondhand stores around Baltimore. Waters’s early films suggest that punk culture had existed long before it had a name; watching teen rebels in 1950s garb devour cops alive in Pink Flamingos and defile Catholic churches with blasphemous ass play in Multiple Maniacs bridges the gap between early rock n’ roll rebels & the punk era’s return to that nasty simplicity by skipping over hippie niceness entirely. When the director made his move into mainstream filmmaking with the period pieces Hairspray & Cry-Baby in the 1980s, he made that connection even more explicit, detailing the undercurrent of punk culture rebelliousness that’s always existed among teen outsiders & societal rejects.

Waters often cites Hairspray as the most subversive film of his career. The idea that the unapologetically queer director of some of the greatest shock value films of all time somehow made a massively popular PG-rated comedy about the evils of racism definitely feels like a provocateur getting away with something. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray recreates the American Bandstand era pop music mania of Waters’s youth both as a nexus of nostalgia for the time’s tacky fashions & as a platform to discuss the hypocrisy of cultural appropriation. The white teens of the film’s bygone suburbia structure their entire lives around dancing on television to black music, but refuse to integrate socially with actual black people. A baby-faced Ricki Lake stars as Waters’s chief rabble-rouser, who protests Baltimore’s local Bandstand knockoff (The Corny Collins Show) for failing to racially integrate beyond featuring black musicians as performers. This defiance (on top of her default outsider status for being heavier than other teen girls on the show) leads our hero down a back alley world of beatniks, hair hoppers, and black Baltimore teens she didn’t have prior access to at home with her worrisome parents (Divine & Jerry Stiller, history’s greatest power couple). Hairspray somewhat succumbs to the common Hollywood problem of glorifying white people for solving racism, but it also makes it clear that America’s worst monsters are smiling, white, suburban faces. As Edith Massey warns in Female Trouble, “The world of heterosexuals is a sick & boring life.” With the exception of the beatniks, whose portrayal’s even more cartoonish than the Roger Corman take in Bucket of Blood, teen counterculture is presented here as the sane alternative to the hideous norm. Hair hopper fashion is far from the signifiers of punk telegraphed in earlier Waters films, but it is equally garish and designed to outrage parents. The music may also be a much simpler, more soulful version of rock n’ roll, but it’s operating with the same rebellious spirit that punk aspired to echo as a disruption to hippie feel-goodery. Hairspray offers Waters’s tamest (and possibly most subversive) version of protopunk teen rebellion, but its historical sense of outrageous teen fashion & disgust with racial fascism are at least in line with punk ideology.

The punk undercurrent is much more immediately apparent in Hairspray‘s follow-up, Cry-Baby. Flipping the calendar back even further to the teen rebels of the 1950s, Cry-Baby is a movie musical pastiche of teen gang melodramas like The Wild One & Rebel Without a Cause (with a little Jailhouse Rick thrown in for good measure). Johnny Depp stars as the titular Cry-Baby, a teenage delinquent who constantly breaks laws to honor the lives of his dead criminal parents, but then cries for the evil things he has to do in their name. The leather jackets & straightforward rock n’ roll of Cry-Baby‘s world are a clear source of inspiration for punk’s barebones, no frills ethos. Although racism is certainly at play in suburban Baltimore’s hatred of its teen counterculture element, the movie distills its “squares” vs. “drapes” dichotomy by making teenage outsiders’ very existence the scourge that’s being targeted. When a young teenybopper dares to cross the social line dividing squares & drapes (becoming a “scrape” hybrid, according to Ricki Lake’s crony), she completes the transformation with a Bad Girl Beauty Makeover, which is very similar to the way young outsiders are inducted into punk culture with shaved heads, piercings, new names, etc. I’m not a huge fan of the songs performed during Cry-Baby‘s traditional movie musical numbers, but seeing the same mainstream production design from Hairspray being applied to a love letter to teenage delinquency in those moments of Hollywood Tradition feels like yet another subversive act on Waters’s part. Waters looks back to the Elvis musicals of his youth to draw a direct connection from the leather jacket rock n’ roll of that era to the protopunk outsider freaks he previously featured in his early Dreamlanders productions. He may have been ahead of the curve on punk culture, but he’s more than willing to provide historical context on why he wasn’t the first to get there.

Just in case you weren’t already clued in by the teenage delinquency and hair hopping social outrage of his two period pieces as punk culture history lessons, Waters also cast two punk icons in central roles in the films. In Hairspray, Debbie Harry features as the racist, uptight mother of one of the most popular dancers on The Corny Collins Show. Cry-Baby casts Iggy Pop as a wild-eyed societal outcast who never outgrew his rebellious teen spirit (not that he really stood much of a chance in avoiding that). Waters’s early 70s version of protopunk grime feels far less out of nowhere after the historical context laid down in these two period pieces, which is an invaluable history lesson on punk’s eternal spirit in teen awkwardness & angst, political or otherwise. More importantly, though, these two films allow Waters an opportunity to contrast the warmth & righteousness of those outsider communities with the grotesque horrors of straight, square suburbia. Polyester was an epiphanic moment in the filmmaker’s career where the aping of Douglas Sirk melodramas showed him the value of contrasting his societal freakshow outsiders with straight-laced, “normal” settings. Hairspray & Cry-Baby focused more intently on exposing these settings as hateful, destructive forces. By bringing his cavalcade of horrors to suburbia, Waters found a chance to emphasize how mainstream culture was so much worse, from the broken legal system to white women spouting hateful racism in the faces of black youth to the grotesque wet smacks of heterosexual teens making out (which is far more disgusting than watching Divine eat dog shit, to be honest). John Waters’s punk culture history lessons are not only a great reminder of the consistent presence of teenage delinquents & societal outcasts in modern American life, but also a necessary indictment of the hatefully homogenized culture those small scale rebels buck against with their mere existence. The great punchline to that joke, of course, is that the mainstream culture he skewered in those two titles ate up that shit & financially sealed his fate in filmmaking infamy. He not only profiled the evolution of punk spirit through the ages, but also sold that historical glorification to the very people who made punk politically & culturally necessary.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Although it’s the title that’s immediately conjured whenever you mention the name of my favorite filmmaker, I had somehow allowed Pink Flamingos to slip in my estimation over the years. Hairspray may be John Waters’s most popular film (and thus, according to Waters himself, his most subversive), but it’s arguable that Pink Flamingos is his most iconic. If a casual cult movie fan hears John Waters’s name, Pink Flamingos will usually be their go-to reference point, typically followed by an offhand remark about Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived, eating dog shit in its infamous epilogue. When I started a Divine-inspired Mardi Gras krewe with fellow Swampflix contributors earlier this year, we relied heavily on the film’s icon status to establish our visual aesthetic; we paraded a flamingo-adorned flag pole and handed out fake piles of shit as our signature throws. Still, my tone when discussing Pink Flamingos has become increasingly dismissive & apologetic in recent years. I love Waters’s films so much (with Desperate Living & Serial Mom being personal favorites) that I feel an ingratiating need to downplay his most monstrously juvenile work’s significance in his ouevre so as not to scare people off from giving his other, less shock value-dependent works a proper chance. After seeing Pink Flamingos‘s trial run predecessor Multiple Maniacs at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest and recently re-watching the trashterpiece on the big screen for the third or fourth time in my life with an appreciatively rowdy crowd at the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art (on my birthday!), I’ve been forced to reassess that apologetic stance. Basically, what I’ve been saying is bullshit. Pink Flamingos is a perfect work of fine art trash cinema, one of the most hilarious comedies ever made.

Much like in Multiple Maniacs, Divine plays herself in a boisterous love letter to her own drag persona. Instead of running an illegal sideshow, however, she’s embroiled in a tabloid-documented war for the title of The Filthiest Person Alive. She has a fairly solid claim to that throne too. Living in a secluded trailer with her two sexual deviant children and her egg-addicted mother (a top-of-her-game Edith Massey), Divine cultivates a kind of Quentin Crisp celebrity; she’s famous for being famous. This infuriates a married couple who are her only true competition for the Filthiest People Alive title, Raymond & Connie Marble (David Lochary & Mink Stole, respectively). The Marbles go out of their way to cultivate a reputation for Filth, forcing hitchhiking teens into slavery & impregnation so they can sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples on the black market. They taunt Divine directly by sending her human shit in the mail & reporting her birthday party celebrations to the police (who the revelers immediately eat & kill, naturally). Eventually, these pretenders to the throne’s “attacks on her divinity” get to be too much for Divine to ignore and the two factions come head to head in a race to see who can execute whom first. Of course, plot is entirely besides the point in this kind of bad taste comedy, which more or less extends the sideshow structure of Multiple Maniacs for a second, more depraved runthrough. Inane conversations about eggs, Divine shoplifting beef under her dress, and even the infamous dogshit conclusion all amount to more than anything that could be considered a plot point. It’s essentially a loosely connected strand of sketch comedy vignettes, a hangout film of the damned.

Waters was still a young, hungry filmmaker where he made Pink Flamingos. You can feel that green, eager-to-shock energy in his need to wear his influences on his sleeve. Movie posters adorn the walls of the Marble home; Russ Meyer’s fetish for classic cars & giant tits are echoed openly at every opportunity; the theme from the Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can’t Help It soundtracks the shoplifting scene at the deli. Still, Pink Flamingos feels astoundingly ahead of its time considering the hippie-flavored Free Love vibes that dominated most counterculture in the early 70s. Waters’s mean freak proto-punk monstrosities, with their leopard print clothes & brightly dyed hair, are a total anomaly. Sometimes that reverence for exploitation cinema shock value can devolve into an amoral ugliness, such as in a hard-to-watch rape scene that involves the real-life death of a chicken (that the crew reportedly grilled & ate after the shoot) & a cry to free one of the key members of The Manson Family. Mostly, though, the so-called Dreamlander crew’s pre-punk ethos is expressed in transcendently silly, aggressively progressive ways: singing buttholes, go-nowhere diatribes about eggs, trans women flashing the camera, a D.I.Y.-flavored disinterest in formalism or good taste. Every time I see Pink Flamingos projected for an audience there are just as many disgusted walkouts as there are people laughing themselves to tears. As the film will be half a century old in just a few years and Waters’s penchant for Filth has been filtered through the mainstream thanks to decendents like the Jackass crew & the Farrelly Brothers, that’s no small feat. The film is just as funny, filthy, grotesque, and vividly punk now as it’s ever been.

The NOMA screening I recently attended merely just projected the same DVD transfer of Pink Flamingos I own at home (on a significantly smaller screen than where it usually plays at The Prytania). Yet, seeing it with that disgusted/delighted art museum crowd was an essential reminder of exactly how transgressive (and gut-bustingly funny) this nasty slice of trash cinema still feels with a modern audience. I need to stop downplaying its place in the Waters ouevre. Pink Flamingos is damn funny and, if punk still means anything culturally in the 2010s, damn important.

-Brandon Ledet

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

campstamp

I’ve seen a few John Waters classics like Desperate Living & Pink Flamingos projected on the big screen before, usually with a midnight crowd, but I’ve only had two experiences watching his work for the very first time in a proper movie theater: 2004’s A Dirty Shame & the 2016 restoration of his 1970 forgotten gem Multiple Maniacs. Surely, there’s a bias factor that should be considered when reviewing a work from your favorite director/artist/human being after experiencing it for the first time large & loud with a receptive film fest crowd. My personal devotion to Waters aside, though, Multiple Maniacs is still an excellent slice of go-for-broke shlock cinema. A smaller, arguably nastier provocation than Pink Flamingos, it answers a question I’m not sure I ever would’ve dreamed to ask: what if John Waters made a horror film? It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional “actors,” but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.

I guess I should clarify up front exactly what I mean when I call Multiple Maniacs a horror film. Unlike the subversive horror comedy leanings of Serial Mom, this is horror in the way titles like Spider Baby & Mudhoney qualify. It’s a grimy uncovering of an outside-of-society crew of murderous weirdos, the kind of picture that eventually lead to more conventional slasher genre space carved out by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but didn’t quite have its own established tradition at the time of its release. Waters displays no shame in his getta-load-of-this-freakshow dynamic, opening his film with a literal freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. A carnival barker advertises “acts against God & Nature” to entice the audience & passersby inside the tent, all while feigning mock disgust. There’s gleeful puke-eaters, bicycle seat humpers, and actual real-life homosexuals (the horror!); but the real star of the show is Divine herself, Waters’s most infamous collaborator and, arguably, the greatest drag queen of all time. Divine’s freakshow act is simply her own fabulous being. She holds her audience at gunpoint, bullies all of her employees, and lounges nude in the mirror to give full reverence to her own beauty & divinity. Her turbulent romance with David Lochary’s carnival barker, with its cop-killing violent streak & dual indulgences in adultery, drives the isolated freakshow into the general public, where Multiple Maniacs turns into a legitimate monster movie. Not only does Divine herself transform into an inhuman monster with a formidable body count, the film also makes room for an appearance from a giant monster movie-style lobster just for the sake of it.

It’s tempting to believe that this early glimpse at John Waters’s regular crew of degenerate collaborators, The Dreamlanders, would mostly benefit the already-converted. Surely it’s exciting to see these weirdos in their artistic infancy. Edith Massey seems particularly fresh & unpolished in her natural habitat as a barkeep. It’s weird to know that David Lochary’s look as Raymond Marble in Pink Flamingos was something he exuded all the time. Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Divine are all playing prototypes of the characters who would later be cartoonishly exaggerated in other Dreamlander collaborations, with Divine’s monstrous transformation in particular being explained in-film with the line “Every minute she’s alive she’s getting worse & worse!” Waters even draws conscious attention to this “cavalcade of perversions” by naming the characters after their real life counterparts: David, Mink, Cookie, Edith, etc. There’s no doubt that longtime fans of the director’s work would get a kick out of this overlooked gem’s babyfaced cast that newcomers might not tend to care about in any particular way. However, the film does have a recognizable appeal as a genre film artifact even outside of that context and it’s a dynamic largely due to its nature as deliberately campy horror.

Seeing Waters’s “cavalcade of perversions” at work so early in his career is valuable both to fans & newcomers alike because it calls attention to the fact that The Dreamlanders were straight up punks in the era of hippies & suburban sprawl. The surf rock soundtrack, beat-up Cadillacs, crossdressing, and leopard print get-ups of Multiple Maniacs construct a rock & roll nightmare incongruous with its then-current counterculture of hippie niceness. This is a playfully mean movie, one crawling with cartoonish rape humor, gleeful violence, and the single most blasphemous use of a prayer rosary imaginable. It’s no wonder that in Divine’s final moments of mania she’s treated like a Godzilla-esque monster complete with fleeing crowds & an armed military response. The world wasn’t quite ready for her particular brand of perversion and her very existence reads on the screen as a criminal act, one amplified by the film’s microfilm-reminiscent opening credits scroll. That shock value even holds power today, somehow, as I’ve never attended a John Waters screening that didn’t inspire at least one walk-out. Even in a film festival environment there were three hurried walk-outs during Multiple Maniacs. I don’t know if that speaks more to Waters’s reputation as The Hairspray Guy, the aggressive specificity of his sense of humor, or his unique ability to push buttons, but it’s honestly kind of incredible that any film from 1970, before the grindhouse heights of drive-in grotesquery, can disgust people into fleeing in horror in 2016, especially one this unabashedly silly.

Waters is obviously an inexperienced filmmaker in Multiple Maniacs. He catches his players wildly out of focus, he wears his influences proudly on his sleeve (including a poster for Russ Meyer’s Vixen!), he relies heavily on details like nudity & (absurdly unrealistic) rape scenarios for easy shock value, etc. However, the film holds up surprisingly well as a proto-punk provocation, maybe even one with wider commercial appeal than the more consistently celebrated Pink Flamingos, due to its genre thrills as an eccentric horror comedy of sorts. I’ll likely have very few more chances to catch one of his films for the very first time in a public audience environment & this one did not disappoint in the slightest. In an ideal world all of Waters’s back catalog would get this careful restoration treatment.

-Brandon Ledet

Cuddles Kovinsky as the Ultimate Edith Massey Performance

EPSON MFP image

The almighty Divine is John Waters’s most infamous collaborator (even if that means her name is unfortunately synonymous with eating dog shit in a broad cultural context). Mary Vivian Pierce is the only Dreamlander (as Waters’s recurring cast is often known) to appear in every one of the director’s features. Mink Stole is, perhaps, the coolest kid in the room, the one with the most adaptable talent & willingness to commit. There’s an argument to be made, however, that Baltimore personality Edith Massey was Waters’s most readily fascinating featured player, his most consistently striking & bizarre screen presence. There’s no one else in all of cinema quite like Massey. The only actor who even comes close is Waters’s idol Russ Meyer’s frequent collaborator Princess Livingston (not surprisingly, the two women were discovered while working as a bartender & a motel manager, not as actors), but even Livingston’s bizarre charisma couldn’t quite match the weird energy & depth of content Massey brought to the screen in her decade-long stint as a Dreamlander. Massey’s odd, snaggle-toothed visage helped define who John Waters is as a filmmaker with a striking, idiosyncratic specificity that makes him my favorite living artist, if not person.

A lot of the shock value humor of Waters’s early, transgressive films often outshines the more even-tempered work he delivered later on in his “mainstream” titles like Hairspray, Cry-Baby, and (the utterly perfect) Serial Mom. Waters is often misunderstood in the context of shock cinema due to his earliest provocations, most notably Pink Flamingos, and the weirder trash-art surreality of his work is sometimes overlooked because of his youthful pranksterism. Massey was with Waters from day one during these formative provocations, putting in the bulk of her work as an actor in the director’s so-called “Trash Trilogy.” Easily, Massey’s most iconic role is her turn as Divine’s mother, The Egg Lady, in the aforementioned Pink Flamingos. The Egg Lady was an underwear-clad humanoid who demanded a constant supply of eggs at all times of the day: a strange, unsettling image that afforded Massey a lifetime of celebrity & provided the name of her short-lived punk band Edie & the Eggs. Massey’s screentime & command of Waters’s strange brand of humor grew in her two subsequent roles as villains in Desperate Living & Female Trouble (two films that are far more attention-worthy than Pink Flamingos, as much as I adore that scrappy filth fest). Massey devours scenery in these two wicked roles, whether she’s coaching her beloved nephew on the lifestyle benefits of “turning queer” or sentencing an entire village to death before her royal firing squad. Much like Waters’s overall aesthetic, however, I’m not convinced that Massey’s work reached its pinnacle in the wild, punk days of the “Trash Trilogy”. Her work wouldn’t meet its peak absurdity until it was juxtaposed against the much more mundane avenues of suburban America (and because we’re talking Waters here, I guess that specifically means suburban Baltimore).

The film that bridged these two halves of John Waters’s career, the trashy & the suburban-surreal, was his 1981 feature Polyester. Presenting Douglas Sirk by way of Russ Meyer, Polyester is a wonderfully strange slice of American pie, one molded & poisoned by melodramatic fits of adultery, alcoholism, teenage delinquency, and sexual perversion. Both halves of Waters’s career have endless merit in my eternally gushing eyes & it’s wonderful to watch the way Polyester can teeter totter on both sides of that divide without ever losing track of what makes either half special. Additionally, this is where I find Edith Massey’s most outrageous, knee-slappingly funny performance to be. Massey’s performance as Cuddles Kovinsky is her finest work as a Dreamlander, a true tour de force of delightfully terrible acting that somehow steals a film from a top-of-her-game Divine, which is no small feat. Watching Massey do her weird, off-putting thing in films like Pink Flamingos & Desperate Living is one thing, but her transgressive screen presence made total sense in the context of those films’ early punk depravity. In Polyester, she’s presented as a normal human being, an upstanding member of regular society, and it’s an outrageously ill-fitting role for a foul-mouthed, snaggle-toothed bartender with her braying style of line delivery to fill. Waters & Massey both knew exactly what they were doing when they airdropped Cuddles Kovinsky into an unsuspecting suburbia and it ended up being both a pivotal turning point in Waters’s trajectory as a filmmaker as well as the pinnacle of Massey’s work as a Dreamlander. Unfortunately, it would also prove to be their final collaboration due to Massey’s escalating health problems and inevitable death.

Cuddles Kovinsky is a wealthy heiress & former housekeeper of Divine’s much put-upon housewife archetype Francine Fishpaw. As Francine’s life spins out of control due to her teenage children’s hedonism & her husband’s flagrant adultery, Cuddles’s own path hits a rags to riches upswing. Cuddles lives the lavish fantasy of the nouveau riche, traveling around Baltimore in a limousine with a boy toy European driver behind the wheel, shopping for fashion’s high end designer finery (none of which looks at all natural or comfortable on her weird, little egg-shaped body), rubbing elbows with Baltimore’s country club elite, and just straight up murdering the French language with a never-ending recital of high society clichés & platitudes. Cuddles is the ever-optimistic ying to Francine’s depressive, alcoholic yang and Massey plays her with the exact right tone of complete obliviousness. When Francine passes out on the floor blind drunk her best friend Cuddles mews, “You’re so cute when you’re tipsy!” When Francine attempts to hang herself to end the pain, Cuddles exclaims, “We’re going on a picnic!” Polyester is mostly centered on Francine’s struggle to find happiness in a world where its existence seems unlikely at best, but Cuddles is perfectly happy throughout, concerned only with what she’s going to wear to her debutante ball at the country club. Divine & Massey’s performances compliment each other nicely, but it’s near impossible to take your eyes off Cuddles anytime she graces the screen. Even her over-the-top pantomime reactions to every syllable of someone else’s lines are attention-grabbing in a completely absurd, living cartoon kind of way. Of all of Massey’s wonderfully weird onscreen creations, Cuddles stands out as her most arrestingly unique & distinctly out of place.

I don’t mean to downplay the early works of either Waters or Massey here. The “Trash Trilogy” is pure cinematic chaos, a hedonistic whirlwind of freaks & weirdos I don’t know where I’d be without. I love each of those films & Massey’s performances in them dearly. With Polyester, however, the degenerate duo (with the help of Divine & other Dreamlanders, of course) struck upon something much more subversive. Watching Massey don leather dominatrix gear or wax poetic about the virtues of cocksuckers fit in very closely with what you’d expect from her image & her gaudy barroom personality. There’s something much stranger & more unexpected going on with Cuddles Kovinsky, a character that allows Massey to wear French schoolgirl & horse riding outfits and bray lines like, “There must be a God. Everything is so beautiful!” It’s all too easy to picture Massey fronting a punk band or tending bar, but gleefully praising God & enjoying a picnic in the woods? That’s some weirdly subversive shit. Waters capitalized on that taking-the-circus-to-suburbia aesthetic more or less for the remainder of his career, but unfortunately Massey wasn’t able to come along for the ride. Polyester ended up being Waters’s final collaboration with the actor and after a role in the forgotten schlock title Mutants in Paradise, she died. At least we can say her career as a Dreamlander ended on top, though, as Cuddles Kovinsky brought some of her weirdest, most unexpected energy to the silver screen, helping reshape the trajectory The Pope of Trash’s career would take in the decades to follow. At least we’ll always have Cuddles

-Brandon Ledet