by Sam Juliano
Present-day John Waters fans who are only familiar with his vomit-inducing Pink Flamingos may be unaware that his best work followed that landmark of sleaze with Female Trouble (1974) and Desparate Living (1977). Of these two, the former rates a slight edge, as it gave bad taste an entirely new level of meaning. Yet, it’s outrageous characters, vile mise en scène and trashy decor was what Waters was all about in those years, and as he was in his writing “prime” it brought out his most inspired talents for satire and self-parody, no matter whose expense it was at. You know you’re in for a most “special” experience after the opening scene, when rotund Baltimore high-schooler Dawn Davenport (played by the king of sleaze himself, Divine) takes major issue with a Christmas present she received from her parents; she discovers a shoe box under the Christmas tree that does not contain the cha cha heels she asked for:
Dawn Davenport: What are these?
Mrs. Davenport: Those are your new shoes, Dawn!
Dawn Davenport: Those aren’t the right kind, I told you cha cha heels, black ones!
Mr. Davenport: Nice girls don’t wear cha cha heels!
Dawn Davenport: Gimmie those presents, I’ll never wear those ugly shoes! I told you the kind I wanted! You ruined my Christmas!
[stomps the Christmas presents]
Mrs. Davenport: Please Dawn! Not on Christmas!
Dawn Davenport: Get off me you ugly witch! [pushes mother into Christmas tree]
Mr. Davenport: Dawn Davenport are you crazy? Look at your mother!
Dawn Davenport: Get off me……Lay off me! I hate you; fuck you! Fuck you both, you awful people! You’re not my parents! I hate you, I hate this house, and I hate Christmas!
This nefarious introduction segues into even sicker territory when a local pervert and car mechanic cruising the beat picks up Dawn and engages in raunchy unprotected sex in a romp on a junkyard mattress with a fat derelict in soiled underpants, who is also a car mechanic who cruises for sex regularly. (Divine also plays this derelict, so the scenes together are craftily edited, making it a kind of “self-rape.” The effect is apparently achieved by cross-cutting footage of Divine dressed as one character either on top or below of a similarly plump double whose face is obviously obscured. It’s surely a grotesque and gratuitous scene with Waters displaying why he is the incomparable King of Trash). One of Waters’ stock company regulars, Mink Stole, is terrific as Dawn’s bratty daughter Taffy, who makes both Patty McCormack in Bad Seed and Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce seem dutiful and mannered by comparison. Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary co-star as crazed owners of a beauty parlor who are convinced that “crime equals beauty,” and they take Dawn under their wing, forcing her to mainline liquid eyeliner to enhance her appeal. But there’s little doubt that the long-time acting treasure in Waters’ arsenal is Edith Massey, who in this film plays Dawn’s obsessive neighbor, “Aunt” Ida, who wants her straight nephew to be gay because “heterosexuals lead sick and boring lives.” She further opines: “Queers are just better” and “I use common sense. I mean if they’re smart they’re queer and if they’re stupid they’re straight.” With ‘heart-felt’ candor she tells her nephew “I’d be so proud if you was a fag.”
She throws acid into Dawn’s face after she marries him, and she spends time locked in an animal cage in her apartment. Massey’s comporment, featuring straggly hair, imperfect teeth and deliberately awful voice delivery that sounds like it was read off cue cards is all part of the director’s purposeful aim to shock and disgust, while stereotyping the lowest kind of human being on the evolutionary scale. Waters found Massey on Baltimore streets, and true-to-form he celebrated her unendowment as a raunchy force of nature.
Basically, Female Trouble is a licentious social commentary, but that is also applicable for the director’s other works of this period. As a follow-up to the notorious (aforementioned) Pink Flamingos, this film is amazingly sicker and even more twisted. Despite its low-budget nature, the film’s script and direction are considerably more ambitious. The surprisingly complex feature packs its narrative into 98 minutes, and it never feels as if its overwritten, with Waters filling each frame of the film with outrageously gaudy sets, costumes, makeup and of course hairdos that create a convincingly surreal atmosphere of bad taste (special credit must also be bestowed upon production designer Vincent Peranio and costume and make-up wizard Van Smith, who each played a crucial role in creating this world). Of course Waters himself served as cinematographer as well. However, Female Trouble is unremittingly over-the-top and hysterically shrill in its pursuit of sick humor that it might frighten off even the most agreeable of cult film addicts. The characters are written in a way that makes them all unsympathetic and the film’s theme of “crime equals beauty” is likely to make even the most liberal-minded viewers squirm (even 35 years later this film’s teeth have not been blunted in this sense), and the story plays sordid themes like child abuse, incest and mutilation for laughs of the darkest variety. Still, those brave enough to stay with the film will be rewarded with hysterical set-pieces, uproarious dialogue, and those incomparably depraved supporting characters, led by Massey as Gator’s anti-heterosexual mother. Waters makes some pointed visual references to fellow directors Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and some of the violence sets the stage for his own Desparate Living, released three years later.
Of course, Female Trouble is graced with the best performance of Divine’s short-career. (Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, where he became a friend of Waters. He died of an enlarged heart in his sleep in March of 1988 at the age of 42). He goes about his transformation from spoiled teen to crazed murderess with a kind of fearless bravado that few actors would attempt, even within the parameters of their character. Of course the matter-of-fact sleaziness and white trash vulgarity to be seen on display here throughout make Dawn Davenport the most original of creations, and no one but Devine could bring her to life in quite the same manor. She is simultaneously terrifying and uproarious in the hilarious nightclub act that climaxes with the actor in drag attempting to “execute” the audience. While performing the act she jumps on a trampoline and wallows in a playpen filled with dead fish. She revels in the ideal that beauty is an art form born from crime and she declares: “I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hotline on Abbie Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck, and I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!” She then yells out, “Who wants to be famous, who wants to die for art?”, and commences shooting into the crowd. Several people are wounded and others are trampled to death by the crowd. Dawn later goes on trial when among others, Ida testifies against her for being kidnapped and having her hand amputated for revenge for having her own face disfigured when Ida splashed acid on her.
In attempting to identify the comedy that underlines Female Trouble or indeed any John Waters film, one must be among those who find anti-conformity a foundation on which to build some raunchy and deranged characters and situations that clearly cross any line of good taste. Those who aren’t on the Waters bandwagon might find Female Trouble an endurance test that transformed the outrageous into the vile and despicable. Veteran fans of the director will usually cite the closing scene in Pink Flamingos as the ultimate in stomach-turning depravity, but it’s old hate for anyone who remembers ‘The Circle of Shit’ segment from Pasolini’s Salo. But where the Italian director’s use of the stomach-churning set-piece was towards a dark and nihilist focus, Waters was after some sick humor of a high order. The same can certainly be applied to the scenes with Massey in the cage or the the depiction of Divine’s daughter as a dangerous, mentally-disturbed youth who gives a new meaning to white trash. While there is never anything sacred to Waters, the truth is there shouldn’t be. He never tried to hide his all-encompassing satire that at the time of his films’ releases set the bar of this kind of gross out humor and immediately established Waters as a darling of cultists. Like Mel Brooks’ outrageous humor in The Producers Waters is going for the unconscionable – that which the audience would need to see or hear before believing. It may be over-the-top and well beyond the point of good taste, but it’s never less than inspired, largely because the director plays the ‘opposite’ game, which proposes that long-held concepts of what is normal and preferred is in fact abnormal. 1960′s sitcoms like The Addams Family and The Munsters played this game to great success, though with nationwide audiences watching their boundaries were far far tamer than independents like Waters who knew precisely what audience he was aiming for. The name of Russ Meyer is usually broached when discussing Waters, and indeed some striking similarities can be asserted, especially in that both were actively mocking moral stereotypes and lampooning conservative American values.
While Female Trouble has reviled and disturbed many, it stands today as as it’s creator’s most ingeniously-written and conceived assault on the mores of civility that he has long since abandoned while developing his most singular style of expression, that the most celebrated cinematic purveyor of bad taste.
How Female Trouble made the Top 100:
Frank Gallo No. 6
Pierre de Plume No. 23
Sam Juliano No. 24
Dennis Polifroni No. 27
Mark Smith No. 29
Bobby McCartney No. 32
Peter M. No. 33