Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast: NOMA’s John Waters Film Fest & Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980)

Welcome to Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-eighth episode, we tackle the career of our favorite living artist/human being. Brandon and Britnee recap the New Orleans Museum of Art’s recent summertime John Waters Film Festival with fellow Krewe Divine co-founder Virginia Ruth. Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Golan-Globus horror comedy Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Cuddles Kovinsky as the Ultimate Edith Massey Performance

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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

Polyester (1981)

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Polyester was not John Waters’ first feature, but it was the first to garner any significant amount of mainstream interest. Following his first forays into feature films with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, Waters worked on what he dubbed the Trash Trilogy, consisting of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. To say that these films pushed the envelope and seemed design to induce faintness and nausea is an understatement; to say that they were in poor taste, or were made as an exploration of “good bad taste,” does the films’ shameless vulgarity a disservice. The films were confrontational, characterized by notoriety, and generally just gross for the sake of it.

Polyester was an altogether different animal. It still featured many of the actors who made up Waters’ “Dreamland” repertory troupe, but it features a much more linear narrative than his previous works. Taking its inspiration from films of the exploitation genre known as “women’s pictures,” especially those of Douglas Sirk, the film concerns the dissolution of the family unit of overweight matriarch Francine Fishpaw (Divine). Francine discovers that her husband Elmer (David Samson), the proprietor of an adult movie theater, is having an affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole); her mother (Joni Ruth White) is an abusive cokehead obsessed with wealth and class; her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is sneaking out to have sex with her delinquent greaser boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators); and her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing weirdo who has been skipping school in order to stomp the feet of unsuspecting women, dubbed the Baltimore Foot Stomper by the press. Her only friend is Cuddles (Edith Massey), the Fishpaw’s (possibly mentally handicapped) former housekeeper who is now quite wealthy after inheriting a tidy sum from another family for whom she once worked as a domestic servant. After her children face their own demons and become (relatively) well adjusted citizens, Francine struggles to overcome the alcoholic despair into which she has fallen, finding a new potential love in Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter).

The Baltimore of Polyester is a wondrously delirious place, full of odd characters and strange circumstances. From the nuns at the unwed mothers’ home that Lu-Lu is sent to, who force the pregnant women in their care to participate in a hayride in the middle of a thunderstorm, to the older choir woman who commandeers a bus in order to chase down the delinquents who swatted her as they drove by (ending with her stopping their escape by biting a hole in their vehicle’s tire), every person is an exaggerated caricature of reality. Hyperbole is Waters’ currency, and Polyester is one of the most accessible of his films for a mainstream audience. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the immersive experience he crafted for the movie: the original theatrical release of the film featured interactivity in the form of an “Odorama” card, with numbers appearing on screen to indicate when audience members should scratch the cards and smell the same thing that Francine does. I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, complete with a recreation of these cards; more often than not, the scents on the card simply smell like chemicals, but that doesn’t detract from the glory of the attempt. This is a delightfully hilarious movie, and I hesitate to say more in order to ensure that you get the maximum number of laughs from it. Suffice it to say: as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, you will love this movie.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond