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

One Plot Two Ways: No Man of Her Own (1950) and Mrs. Winterbourne (1996)

I was first introduced to the zany Mrs. Winterbourne by a good friend of mine.  We giggled over the ridiculous plot, the fun overacting of Ricki Lake, the suaveness of Brendan Fraser – all of the things that make Mrs. Winterbourne its fabulous self.  It’s an entertaining, lighthearted, and strange movie.  It’s fun to see Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser in full 90s getup attempting to set up a plot about unwed mothers, literal train wrecks, domestic abuse, and murder into a screwball comedy.

Years later, I would search Netflix for “noir” and scroll through a list of noir films.  No Man of Her Own caught my eye, a 1950 film starring the ever-moody and beautifully tense Barbara Stanwyck.  It was somewhere around the train accident that I started to experience a strange sense of déjà vu.  Sure enough, the desperate pregnant woman wakes up panicked and decidedly un-pregnant at a hospital, only to find herself misidentified as a dead man’s wife.

What, I thought to myself, is going on here?  Could Mrs. Winterbourne be a remake?!

No, it turns out, it’s not.

Mrs. Winterbourne and No Man of Her Own are both based on the same book, I Married a Dead Man, written by Cornell Woolrich and published in 1948.  This book is firmly described as a drama, appropriate for a story dealing with mistaken identity, blackmail, and murder.  No Man of Her Own definitely sticks more closely to the original spirit of Woolrich’s novel.  [Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel]

The broad details of the movie are, of course, the same.  An unmarried pregnant woman is rejected by the baby’s father.  She takes a one-way train away from a nasty ex-boyfriend and meets a charming, rich couple.  The female half of the couple is also pregnant, leading to bonding between our protagonist and the other lady.  The charming couple is killed in a terrible train accident, but our protagonist survives and is mis-identified as the other woman .  She gives birth in the hospital while in a coma, and wakes to find that it has been arranged for her and the baby to be taken in by the family of the dead couple.  She and the baby are welcomed into the family’s home as their daughter-in-law, where she meets the brother of the dead man.  As she commits to living a stolen life and she and her “brother-in-law” fall in love, the baby’s real father finds her and starts to blackmail her, leading to a third-act murder mystery.

Despite the broad plot points (and a few smaller similarities, like the maid’s double-bun hairstyle), No Man of Her Own does several important things very differently.  First of all, No Man is firmly a drama.  The atmosphere is one of tension and anxiety, brought beautifully to screen by Stanwyck.  The chemistry between Stanwyck and John Lund is much more natural and less showy than the relationship between Fraser and Lake, which is one of my main complaints about Mrs. Winterbourne.  The focus on the film is much less about blooming relationships and personal growth.  I’m sorry to report that there is no tango scene.  No Man of Her Own is a much darker movie, which is appropriate for the content of the plot.  The pacing is tight and fast, and feels shorter than the hour and 38 minute run time.  There aren’t any scenes that leave you wondering what the hell the director was thinking (I’m looking at you, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”).

The differences that I found the most interesting are some of the more subtle ones.  Helen isn’t happy about the baby, but never has the option to consider keeping the pregnancy or not.  It is a given that she will have the baby as an unwed mother.  She also makes the conscious decision to masquerade as Mrs. Harkness much earlier on, before she leaves the hospital, instead of being browbeaten into by others.  Bill isn’t played as a stiff necked prat, but as a charming sweetheart who calls easily befriends Stanwyck’s Helen.  No Man of Her Own focuses less on the blooming relationship between the protagonist and her ersatz brother-in-law, and is much less interested in the personal growth of the characters. There is less interest in the class difference between Helen and her adoptive family as well, and though she is invested in the luxury of her new life, she is portrayed as polished and classy, running up and down the stairs for the baby’s bottle in heels and speaking in the same beautiful Mid-Atlantic accent as everyone else. Helen’s potential giveaways are about her knowledge of Hugh, her dead “husband”, not her inability to eat dinner without blurting out crude words in a Joisey accent.

There are a few things that Mrs. Winterbourne does better.  Shirley MacLaine’s portrayal of Grace Winterbourne is really lovely, and shifts the heart of the movie to her character in a way that makes sense in the plot as the protagonists in both movies are motivated to protect Bill’s mother from life-threatening stress.  I think that Mrs. Winterbourne does a better job of showing the confusion and heartache of a family that has just lost a loved member.  Grace Winterbourne’s reaction of attempting to drown Connie and the baby in gifts and kindness is portrayed much more strongly and Bill Winterbourne’s suspicion and coldness make sense as reactions to a death in the family.  Mrs. Winterbourne’s Steve, portrayed by Loren Dean, is so perfectly scummy and dramatically sociopathic that he makes Lyle Bettger’s slick and cold Steve look bland.  The charm of Miguel Sandoval as the sassy and wise Paco is missing from No Man of Her Own, and Helen is left to her own devices to figure out a course of action.

No Man of Her Own and Mrs. Winterbourne are on opposite ends of the genre spectrum – noir drama and screwball comedy.  Even so, I think that a comparison can be made between the two movies.  No Man of Her Own is very watchable, and an interesting entry in the noir genre because of its female protagonist.  Stanwyck’s Helen is much more self-determined than Lake’s Connie, taking action for herself and bringing more agency to the screen.  No Man comes across as more comprehensible and cohesive, while Mrs. Winterbourne sometimes leaves the audience incredulous.  Honestly, it’s a better movie than Mrs. Winterbourne, though I concede that it’s less entertaining. No Man might be a more difficult sell for modern audiences as well, and I have to admit that I’m a noir enthusiast to begin with.  Mrs. Winterbourne would probably be my pick for a movie night (and . . . it was, for the Swampflix crew) because of its humor.  It’s interesting to see two such completely different takes on the same plot, and I hope that you get the chance to compare the two for yourself sometime.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1996’s Mrs. Winterbourne, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s peek into the film’s press kit.

-Erin Kinchen

9 Mildly Interesting Things I Learned from the Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) Press Kit

The I Luv Video outlet near me on Austin’s Guadalupe Street is closing down and consolidating with their other location. There’s been a sign out front for weeks now advertising that a lot of their old fare is for sale. I went hoping to find some Dario Argento DVDs like Phenomena or Tenebrae, and although the good stuff was all gone (there are two copies of Eldritch abomination Phantom of the Opera and one of Jenifer, for those of you who hate yourselves and have a few dollars rattling around that you would prefer not to have), I did stumble across a small trove of press kits for nineties flicks. And what should I find among them but a folder labeled Mrs. Winterbourne?

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What’s a press kit? Well, whippersnappers, back in the day before the internet made the acquisition and dissemination of information easy and manageable, production companies would distribute press kits to media outlets. These packets contained information about the production, statements from cast and crew, and glossy photos from the film itself, all ready for inclusion and quotation in previews and reviews. There’s little information in them that can’t be found online these days, but there were a few things in the press kit for Winterbourne that were interesting and that we didn’t know before watching the movie. Look, this isn’t Buzzfeed, I’m not going to tell you that any of these facts with “change the way you look at [x] forever,” or pretend that any of them are “mind blowing.” But they are neat, so without further ado, here are 9 Mildly Interesting Facts I Learned from the Mrs. Winterbourne Press Kit:

1. Brendan Fraser was the last person to join the cast. Ricki Lake was actually first cast, with Shirley MacLaine cast shortly after. According to page 7, Fraser “came into the cast […] only days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin.”

2. Fraser’s casting was at the behest of Lake. From page 8: “Fraser is a friend of Lake’s and was suggested by her.”

3. Fraser was also making a name for himself on stage in the nineties. Fraser’s bio on page 11 delineates a theatre career that includes a B.F.A. in acting from the Actor’s Conservatory as well as performances at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, The Laughing Horse Summer Theater, and “rave reviews for his work as a tortured writer in John Patrick Shanley’s play Four Dogs and a Bone.”

4. Loren Dean (Steve DeCunzo) also worked with Shanley. In addition to winning a Theatre World Award in 1989 (for something called Amulets Against the Dragon Forces, which isn’t underlined or italicized, so it’s unclear what kind of work that is), he also originated roles in the aforementioned Four Dogs and a Bone and Shanley’s other play Beggars in the House of Plenty.

5. Susan Haskell (the real Patricia Winterbourne) is a scientist. From page 13: “A native of Toronto, Canada, Haskell graduated cum laude from Tufts University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Bio-Psychology.”

6. Director Richard Benjamin won the 1975 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Sunshine Boys.

7. Producer Dale Pollock began his career as a journalist. This phase of his career lasted 12 years, during which he was a film critic and box office analyst for Daily Variety and a writer for the LA Times. He also wrote George Lucas’s biography, Skywalking, which had the good fortune to be released before the Star Wars prequels.

8. Writer Phoef Sutton won a comedy award. Although his main claim to fame was as a writer/producer for Cheers (which earned him a Golden Globe, a Writer’s Guild Award, and two Emmy Awards), he won the Norman Lear Award for Comedy in 1980, and he received a National Endowment for the Arts Playwright’s Fellowship in 1983.

9. Writer Lisa-Maria Radano worked on The Tracey Ullman Show. Radano also founded a small Manhattan theater company called Shadowfax and received a New York Council for the Arts grant for her play The Secret Sits in the Middle in 1988.

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For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1996’s Mrs. Winterbourne, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond