Tuesday, August 07, 2007


That Magic Potion in a 12-oz Can

By Odienator
My aunt once told me of a popular dance in my grandfather's day called "The Dog." People crawled around on all fours to the music, cocking their heads like a dog. Occasionally, the dancers would lift their legs up as if they were peeing on a fire hydrant. "I don't know if they sniffed each other's asses too," she informed me. "Daddy didn't tell us that."

I recalled that story while watching John Waters' Hairspray on the big screen in 1988. Waters' shockingly PG-rated musical featured a plethora of '60s dances, most of which I'd heard of before. However, there was one dance that blew me away, and it was almost as crazy as The Dog. Late in the film, villainess Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) dedicates a dance at the Auto Show Hop to her nemesis, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) who, for reasons too complicated to reveal right now, is rotting away in reform school. "It's a brand new dance that I'm sure you'll know how to do," Amber says snidely. "It's called The Roach." Judging from the picture above, Tracy certainly knew something about roaches.

Nothing could prepare me for what happened next. As a catchy R&B number blared from the speakers, Amber proceeded to squash imaginary roaches on the dance floor, and, to add insult to their injury, pantomimed spraying them with an exterminator can. I laughed so hard that I choked on my popcorn. If you lived in the neighborhood I grew up in, this was an activity with which you could identify. It was pure John Waters, a mix of absurdity and social commentary. Here was the rich snob girl from Baltimore stomping roaches and shaking her ass while the lyrics commanded her to "squish, squash, kill dat roach!"

From Pink Flamingos to Parental Guidance Suggested

Despite its family friendly rating, Hairspray is still a John Waters movie. It may be a kinder John Waters, but it's certainly not a gentler one. All the things that make a John Waters movie are still there, just muted. There's still a love for the underdog, a penchant for making the surreal seem normal, and an unhealthy attraction to bad fashion. There's still vomit and assholes as well, but it's PG-rated vomit and PG-rated assholes. (You have to look real hard to find the latter, but it's there.) And of course, there's Divine, in and out of drag, reuniting with Waters for the first time in seven years.

Stripped of X-rated shock tactics, Waters crafts his satire into a cute toy poodle with the bite of a pit bull. He takes Bye Bye Birdie and crosses it with a movie about race relations and acceptance of the pleasantly plump. It's Stanley Kramer's Beach Blanket Bingo, filled with so many dance numbers that making a movie musical out of it seems out of the question (and currently playing at a theater near you). Waters' soundtrack, and the real dances he uses, evoke a realistic feeling of time and place missing from both the Broadway musical and its movie incarnation. They are both enjoyable for different reasons, but neither of them is as ballsy nor as sharply mean as their predecessor. The lovers of movies such as Female Trouble (and I admit I'm one of them) may protest when I say this, but Hairspray is John Waters' masterpiece.

I'm Big, Blonde and Beautiful!

In American culture, beauty is personified by blondes. Blondes have more fun, the saying goes. Big and beautiful are rarely seen in the same sentence if the subject is women. Hairspray presents us a protagonist who, at film's opening, is big but not blonde, and the film is out to convince us she's beautiful. Tracy Turnblad is the daughter of Edna (Divine) and Wilbur Turnblad (Jerry Stiller). She's, as Mr. Pinky calls her later, a "big-boned gal." But boy, can she dance! She and her partner in alliterative names Penny Pingleton (Lesley Anne Powers) rush home every day to watch "The Corny Collins Show," the Baltimore version of American Bandstand. All the cool kids from school appear on the show every day — unless you're a Black kid. Black kids only appeared on the once a month airing of Negro Day. Integration of any sort is prohibited on WZZT, so long as the station owner Arvin Hodgepile (Divine again, as a man) has anything to do with it.

Tracy dances better than any of the girls on the show, but the queen bee of the telecast is Amber von Tussle. Amber is blonde and beautiful like her Mom (Debbie Harry). Also like her Mom, she's another b-word: a bitch. Amber is wearing the ring of Link (Michael St. Gerard), the handsomest hunk to ever get a close-up on Tracy's black and white TV. When Tracy decides to try out for the show, Amber states "the show is not shot in CinemaScope!" Tracy dances her ass off, and when she is selected as a member of the Corny Collins Council, she sets out to prove to the world that Big Girls Don't Cry, They Dance.

Amber's terrible behavior gets her banned from the Ladies Choice Dance, and from home she watches Tracy choose Link to dance with on the show. Amber is so angry she throws Link's ring across the room. She's comforted by her Mom and Dad (Sonny Bono), two angry and supremely racist people. "She's White Trash!" screams Dad about Tracy. Mom says "for all you know, that girl could be high yellow!"

About the only thing that's high and yellow is Tracy's hair. She comes home with a blonde two-toned 'do that looks like the hairdresser ran out of peroxide mid-dye job. "I want all of Baltimore to know that I'm Big, Blonde, and Beautiful!" Tracy exclaims to Edna and Wilbur. "And I'm in love!" You would be too if you took one look at Link. John Waters certainly was; he gives Link a loving closeup, his "Joan Crawford moment," and the highest honor bestowed in a John Waters flick.

Dancing to That Colored Music

Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) is big and blonde. She's also another b-word: Black. Maybelle runs Negro Day and is far from pleased that such a thing exists. She goes with the flow, but has her own side hustle of a party at the record store that probably supplies WZZT with the R&B music Tracy and her council members dance to on Corny Collins. After Tracy sees a young, talented Black teenager humiliated during her audition for Corny Collins (Mink Stole asks her "can you relate to Shelley Fabares" and she responds "I'll dance to Lawrence Welk if I have to!"), Tracy realizes Negro Day is not fair. After all, if they allowed her, someone far from the council norm to be on the show, why not these Black kids who can do the dances better than their Corny Collins counterparts? Tracy is not only in love, she's into integration! She and Link make their way to Maybelle's for the kind of dancing you can't do on whitebread TV.

Also into integration, or perhaps just merely miscegenation, is Tracy's pal Penny Pingleton. Penny wears a big P on her sweater, like Letterman on The Electric Company, because according to her paranoid, high strung mother Prudence (Joanna Havrilla), "Penny Pingleton is permanently, positively punished!" Penny purposefully pretends she's not punished and presents herself at the premises of Motormouth Maybelle so she may press her parts against Maybelle's progeny, Seaweed (Clayton Prince). Meanwhile, Prudence catches her daughter sneaking on the ghetto bus and gets a cab to the Black part of Baltimore. Once she gets there, Prudence acts like a damn fool, freaking out at every single Black person she encounters, even the cops. She catches her daughter dirty dancing with Seaweed and has a Dolly Parton-size titty attack. She forbids Penny from seeing Seaweed, but you know how that sort of thing goes. Prudence eventually resorts to more drastic measures after finding Penny getting to second base with Seaweed during Negro Day: She has her strait-jacketed and subjected to an electric cattle prod wielded by John Waters himself.

"You only want nice, White boys!" he says in a crazed voice as he shocks her repeatedly. "It's a shame for those kids to be dancing to that colored music!" snaps one of Edna's customers earlier in the film. Making out to it gets you sent over the cuckoo's nest.

High School Musical

The Corny Collins Council is a brilliant microcosm of high school Hell. They're the can-do's who convince the have nots that they can't do. The interview process for the council is brutal. The candidates are insulted, laughed at and held up to ridicule — and that's just by Mink Stole! The kids on the council are equally brutal. Amber can't resist attempting to make Tracy feel like she's not entitled to shake a tail feather on the same line as the thin kids. The candidates are dismissed with the line "please wait outside while the council discusses your flaws and shortcomings."

Even the kids who make it on the council are concerned about looking good and staying in the council's good graces. If your popularity wanes, out the door you go. One girl stuffs her bra with stockings during a commercial break, leading Stole to deviate from her usual "APPLAUSE" cue card to call her out.

Waters makes every attempt to show the cattiness of his teenagers. It feels as if he is exorcising some demons of his own high school experience. Amber spreads horrible rumors, telling anyone who listens that Tracy has roaches in her coif and passing notes that say "She's adopted!!!!" During a dance scene, Amber mouths the word "WHORE" in Tracy's direction. When Link hooks up with Tracy despite her being the spokesgirl for Hefty Hideaway ("clothes for the ample woman"), Amber is as mad as a wet hen on the set of Pink Flamingos. She sets out to destroy Tracy, no matter what the cost.

Tracy suffers humiliation at school, being sent to Special Ed because her hair is too high. ("You're a hair hopper!" people keep telling her, even her mother.) She finds that all the Black kids are also in Special Ed because their skin is too tan. Waters plays Special Ed as a serious joke on the school system, not its inhabitants. It's where his idea of the cool people are, the outcasts who deserve to be in the in crowd. Despite all this, Tracy's optimism never wanes and she becomes the most popular girl on the Council, much to Amber's horror.

Motherhood is Divine

Harris Glen Milstead was the government name of Divine, a transvestite performer usually saddled with doing the most memorably shocking things in John Waters' oeuvre. In Hairspray, Divine shocks us again by giving a fine, subtle performance. We actually believe this larger than life performer is a mother saddled in the '50s, with old fashioned values and genuine concern for her daughter. John Travolta is a gimmick; Divine is the real deal. Delivering some real zingers with an underplayed wit, Divine finds some heretofore unexplored nuances in her performance. Waters loves Divine and in his movies, he wants us to love her too. But this is the first time I actually felt for a character inhabited by Divine. My favorite moment is when Tracy introduces Edna to the '60s by getting her a ridiculously high hairdo to go with the new dress she received for negotiating Tracy's contract with the Hefty Hideaway. Divine comes out of the salon and touches her hair, which admittedly looks absurd. There is such pride in the moment, as if this woman had been reborn. This is the best performance Divine ever gave, and it is wonderful.

This Revolution Gets Televised

Unlike the 2007 Hairspray, the segregation subplot is played as a normal part of the plot. Motormouth Maybelle is just a regular person who's tired of being relegated to Negro Day. (Why didn't Waters call it "Colored Day On The Corny Collins Show?" Probably because this movie already has more alliteration than The Raven.) Hairspray 2007 makes it seem like Queen Latifah's Motormouth Maybelle IS the Civil Rights movement. The Queen sings wonderfully, but her character is written as if she's got Rosa Parks' bus on her back as she crawls toward the March on Washington. She is beyond noble while Ruth Brown is beyond nutty.

Brown's Maybelle shows up at the Tilted Acres amusement park (actually Dorney Park in Allentown, PA) to protest her dancers not being allowed to attend the Corny Collins broadcast there. A riot breaks out, and Waters plays it rather straight—for him. A crazed woman swinging a mad pocketbook ("she was really hitting people hard," Waters says on the DVD commentary) breaks Link's knees while Blacks and Whites tussle. Tracy gets arrested while Link has that aforementioned "Joan Crawford moment" where he stares into the camera and overacts, calling out for his beloved Tracy while crawling on the broken knees the film will conveniently forget about 15 minutes later.

The riot is the moment that always surprises me in the film. There is a subtle tension building behind the jokes and the satire, and it logically led to some form of altercation. While a milder riot than, say, Do the Right Thing, it's still a riot and our heroine, in standing up for what she believes in, winds up in yet another cool place for Waters: reform school.

Boogie Wonderland

This is where you came in. Tracy's in reform school and Amber is crushing cucarachas. Penny Pingleton is getting the Jungle Fever shocked out of her in a botched attempt to remove the "checkerboard chick" status crazed beatnik Pia Zadora (in the best thing she ever did) bestowed upon her. And Motormouth Maybelle and her kids Seaweed and Little Inez are about to do something drastic to save Tracy. I'm not going to tell you what they do — you just need to see it — but they get Tracy out of jail just in time to upstage Amber with a dress with large roaches on it. Not since Rita Hayworth is Gilda has an actress made such a brilliant, lasting impression with an entrance (and poor Rita had to do it sans roaches).

Of course, "The Corny Collins Show" gets integrated at film's end, but the movie doesn't make as big a deal out of it as its remake. It spends more time with an exploding bomb in somebody's wig. In the integration scene, Divine dances like someone who weighs that much while Travolta's character goes all Tina Turner and should have had a heart attack for dancing that hard at that weight. This sums up the main difference between the two features. As fun as the new Hairspray is, it never feels real nor lived in.

Speaking of dances, Hairspray's choreographer Edward Love deserves mention here. He crams the movie full of dances, including the Madison, the Waddle, the Bug and a dance I still can't do despite 30 years of trying, the Mashed Potato. All the kids in the film look far too young to remember any of these, so Love had to teach them all to them. It's seamless, and the dance numbers have an energy like the musical version, but they also have a nostalgia factor the musical can only attempt to recreate. The dances, and the songs that instructed us how to do them, were really done by people like my aunt and John Waters, whose commentary on the DVD has the right mix of information and bitchy gay sensibility.

Speaking of my aunt, she and my mother watched this movie with me and my siblings when it came out on VHS, and then treated us to a recreation of every dance in the movie, including the Madison, which looks like the Electric Slide for people who can do more than four steps. I also learned that John Waters didn't invent The Roach; it was a hit dance song for Gene and Wendell. I just wish I'd known about it when I was doing it for real.

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How about this for freaky coincidence? I saw a critics screening of Hairspray in 1988 and as soon as it was over and I was back in my car, I turned on the radio to the news that Divine had passed away.
That is a freaky coincidence.

By the time I got to Hairspray, I'd seen most of Waters' earlier movies. I even still have my Odorama card from Polyester (as well as almost every pair of 3-D glasses I got during the early 80's 3-D craze). Divine's performance surprised me because I'd never expect someone that outrageous and flamboyant to play someone so restrained.

On the DVD, Waters talks about Divine's reaction to Jerry Stiller's Method acting. Stiller would follow Divine around, putting his arm around her during lunch and basically acting like the husband he plays in the film. Apparently, it freaked Divine out. Now that's saying something.
What a terrific read this is, Odienator - it makes me want to rat up my `do, strap on my blue suede shoes and watch the original Hairspray all over again. As far as the remake is concerned, Travolta is not a gimmick - he's a fucking catastrophe. Sometimes, one truly awful performance can ruin what might otherwise qualify as a perfectly pleasant diversion...Bad Travolta! Bad!!
I can here John Revolta now:

"Aw, c'mon Jash! Oh my Gaad! How can you say dose terrible things about me? Oh my Gaad! Don't watch Moment By Moment or you'll die!"

I thought he was tolerable, but this is not a good performance. It's ALWAYS Travolta in a fat suit. It never becomes Edna Turnblad. When I saw it on Broadway and Harvey Fierstein was Edna, I bought it. But not Travolta. However, the kitschy part of me loved his number with Christopher Walken.

Thanks for the compliment on the piece. You should watch Hairspray again for sure. Someday I'll learn how to do that damn mashed potato dance.
My fav review yet, Odienator!

Thanks, Greenboy!
One of the things that pissed me off about the remake was Zac Efron as Link. I can't imagine anyone being in love with him.
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