By the late 70s John Waters was in danger of painting himself into a filmic corner. There wasn’t too much left for him to do in terms of cinematic grossness, and he was inevitably going to start running up against the law of diminishing returns. In 1981 he found the answer to this conundrum by veering sharply towards the mainstream with Polyester.
That’s not to say that Polyester can be described as a mainstream film. It’s still a low-budget production, and there’s still a fair amount of grossness. And a great deal of outrageousness and grotesquerie. But there’s also a coherent plot, and real characters. And not just real characters, but characters we can care about, in a twisted sort of way. There’s even actual acting. It’s a movie that gives the impression of having been made from a written script.
Divine is suburban housewife Francise Fishpaw. Francine wants to love the American Dream, and be accepted by her neighbours. Unfortunately that isn’t likely to happen, since her husband Elmer runs the local porno movie theatre. The Fishpaw residence is the target of noisy demonstrations by the self-appointed guardians of public morality, demanding family entertainment instead of the fleshly delights currently being offered by Elmer’s movie house.
The Fishpaw’s two teenage children are also a source of anxiety. The son, Dexter, is a devotee of both glue-sniffing and foot fetishism. He is in fact the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper, who has been terrorising the women of this fair city by stomping on their high heel-clad feet. Daughter Lu-Lu also indulges in glue-sniffing and is dating a punk rocker. She is also proudly looking forward to her first abortion. Francine has enough worries with her two offspring, but her world really starts to fall apart when she discovers her husband’s affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole looking more outrageous than ever in a Bo Derek hairdo). Francine’s mother is also helping herself to Francine’s money. Francine takes refuge in alcoholism, until one day she meets a gorgeous if somewhat ageing stud (played with gusto by 50s heart-throb Tab Hunter) at a traffic accident. Is Francine’s luck finally changing for the better? Well, maybe not.
The movie was famous for having been filmed in Odorama, with theatre patrons being supplied with scratch and sniff cards to be used at important points in the movie. This was an obvious tribute to one of Waters’ cinematic idols, William Caste, the famous B-movie producer known as the King of the Gimmicks. In fact the biggest inspiration for Polyester comes from another of Waters’ idols, the great Douglas Sirk. If you can imagine one of Sirk’s sumptuous Technicolor melodramas from the 50s but with a 300-pound drag queen as the female lead, you have an idea of what to expect from Polyester. On a miniscule budget Waters does a surprisingly good job of evoking the look and the feel of Sirk’s movies.
The biggest revelation though was that Divine could act. He makes a perfect Douglas Sirk melodrama star! The acting in general is bizarre but extremely effective, with Waters regulars Mink Stole and Edith Massey (as Francine’s best friend Cuddles Kovinsky) both extremely good. Ken King as Dexter and Mary Garlington as Lu-Lu are wonderfully over-the-top. Lu-Lu’s constant dancing is terrific. Both children eventually reform, and are even more disturbing after their reformations! Lu-Lu becomes a hippie and credits macrame with saving her life after she had fallen into the hands of crazed pro-life nuns and had suffered a miscarriage brought on by the constant hayrides to which the nuns subjected their captive unwed mothers-to-be.
The DVD includes a commentary track by John Waters, and like all his commentary tracks it’s immensely entertaining.
Polyester gave Waters his first real taste of commercial success and it’s a perfect mix of his trademark outrageously confrontational style with the odd warmth and the sympathetic portrayal of outsiders that make his later more mainstream movies so appealing. And it’s non-stop fun.