Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

To Die For (1995)

Nicole Kidman stars in Gus Van Sant’s tabloids-obsessed erotic thriller To Die For as a local cable Weather Girl from the suburbs who cons metalhead teenage dirtbags into murdering her husband. It is maybe the most purely 90s Movie I’ve caught up with since the 90s ended, having blindly stumbled upon it as a recent thrift store purchase because I dug Kidman’s lewk on the poster. Her costars include Ultra 90s sitcom performers Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), George Segal (Just Shoot Me!), and the never-less-than-stellar Illeana Douglas (who had at least one guest spot on any TV show you can name) among Van Sant’s usual movie-star caliber cast of players. Arriving just one year after Pulp Fiction, it experiments with the scrambled timeline messiness that became inescapably popular in a post-Tarantino world, applying it to the Joe Eszterhaz era erotic thriller, as defined by 90s titles like Showgirls & Basic Instinct. Danny Elfmann provided the score, which can’t help but recall the 90s suburbia fantasy worlds he helped establish for Tim Burton in titles like Edward Scissorhands & Beetlejuice (which spilled over into the decade in its animated Saturday Morning Cartoon form). The only way To Die For could be more quintessentially 90s is if it were Clueless and, even then, both films share their casting of Dan Hedaya as a disgruntled dad.

Beyond its immersion in contemporary aesthetics & personae, To Die For is distinctly 90s on a philosophical level in its bottomless appetite for tabloid sensationalism. Vanity Fair dubbed the 90s to be The Tabloid Decade in its 1999 retrospective on how news media had changed over those ten years (which makes sense given that it was the decade when the O.J. Simpson trial kicked off the 24-hour News Cycle, bringing tabloid journalism into every American’s living room on a round-the-clock routine). Energized by that growing cultural obsession with Celebrity Criminals, Nicole Kidman plays a tabloid superstar who recalls archetypes of the era like Lorena Bobbitt, Patsy Ramsey, and Tonya Harding (which makes it fitting that I, Tonya later copied from this movie wholesale and turned every last interesting thing about it into a tactless embarrassment). The novel Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from was even “loosely” based on a real-life tabloid sensation: Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire high school employee who really did seduce her school’s least respected teens into murdering her husband. Although Smart was not a Weather Girl in real life, contemporary audiences still would have recognized the iconography of her crime from the supermarket magazine racks and instantly known where this story is headed, so Henry & Van Sant waste no time taking them there. The movie begins with Kidman being mobbed by paparazzi at her husband’s funeral. Her fame is then projected on tabloid magazine-inspired opening credits so intensely up-close that they resemble a Roy Lichtenstein print in motion. A fictional headline that reads “Sex, Violence, and the Weather” could have served as an alternate title if Van Sant really wanted to commit to this sadistic tabloid obsessiveness (it’s what the Lifetime Channel version of the movie would have done, anyway), but we still get the point without him going there.

Since the Pamela Smart story was already familiar to the point where it was practically a modern folktale, To Die For is less about the surprise of her life’s twists than it is about the alluring idiosyncrasies of her character. Kidman’s persona in the film feels like a Mainstream Hollywood mutation of the fame-seeking anti-heroines of John Waters’s oeuvre: Pink Flamingos‘s Babs Johnson, Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport, Cecil B. Demented‘s Honey Whitlock, etc. She is desperate to be a famous TV personality at any cost. At first, her path to achieving that dream seems to be exhibiting her bombshell good looks on a local cable network’s news show as their eye-candy Weather Girl. Murdering her husband was only a necessary insurance measure, since he disapproved of her leveraging that gig into bigger opportunities that might have come along – preferring that she settle for becoming a stay-at-home mother instead. It turns out, though, that the murder itself was a much quicker path to televised fame. There’s a noticeable thrill that lights up her eyes once she realizes that the world’s attention is glued to her misdeeds on the screen (and on supermarket magazine racks). By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.

The only hiccup I have with my enjoyment of To Die For is the way Gus Van Sant plays with the order of events. His mix of mockumentary and traditional narrative filmmaking styles is generally fun to watch, but there is a jerky stop-and-start rhythm to their assemblage that makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in the story being told. Otherwise, I’m totally on board with this film as an exercise in 90s-specific aesthetics, especially in its harsh contrast between Kidman’s bubbly femininity and the speed metal riffs that frequently interrupt Elmann’s whimsical score. The film only becomes more impressive the longer you dwell on how I, Tonya disastrously attempted to repeat every single trick in its playbook (which becomes apparent as soon as Illeana Douglas begins conducting her “interviews” from an ice-skating rink) but stumbled on a hypocritical tact of audience-blaming that blew up the entire balancing act. By contrast, Van Sant openly indulges in being captivated by the Pamela Smart story, shamelessly burrowing into its most sordid details and cruelly poking fun at the small-town simplicity of its central players. It might not be as Moral of an approach as the audience shaming finger-wagging of I, Tonya, but it’s at least an honest one. To Die For captures a very specific time in tabloid criminal celebrity by genuinely participating in its full allure, like a Lifetime Original Movie that happens to feature actual movie stars. If nothing else, it’s easily among the career best outings for both Kidman & Van Sant, who have plenty of formidable contenders for that honor.

-Brandon Ledet