In singing their duet, “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” the long-married Wilbur (Christopher Walken) and Edna Turnblad (John Travolta) reaffirm their love. It’s a showstopper, and also the gayest thing I’ve seen in a movie musical since Harold (Jim Broadbent) and The Duke’s (Richard Roxborough) version of “Like a Virgin” in Moulin Rouge! (2001).
I walked in with much trepidation concerning Travolta’s turn as Edna, based as much in the queasiness he evokes for me as my devotion to Divine. And Travolta takes time to warm up to in Hairspray. His Baltimorean accent sounds forced, and he plays Edna as a housewife, whereas Divine played her as a drag queen. Travolta, no surprise, pales by comparison.
But then comes that duet, which lists their many flaws (“I can’t stop eating, / Your hairline’s receding”) but showcases that they do indeed still love one another. The lyrics are bitingly funny, but the real pleasure is watching the two dance around the laundry hanging in their working-class backyard. It’s always a campy treat to see Travolta dance these days, but Walken is magical: his skips and hops, the way he sweeps and hiccups his arms, and his reactions to Edna show his joy in the performance. It’s totally infectious and helps to redeem Travolta’s previous awkwardness. From this point on, Edna seems a sexy, irrepressible force.
Here and elsewhere, Hairspray pays homage to Waters’ notoriously sexploitation style and themes. The opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” features rats scurrying near Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) as she sings to them (a similar visual appears in Waters’ film), drunks littering the street, and Tracy riding to school regally atop a city garbage truck. Quite literally, Hairspray acknowledges its roots in Waters’ “trash” cinema. The auteur even makes a cameo as the neighborhood “flasher” Tracy sings about.
Other moments of homage are less broadly drawn, but clear enough: when Link Larkin (Zac Efron) licks his palm to slick back his always perfect pompadour, the camera lingers close-up on that tongue for just a moment too long, one more second would probably have had the MPAA slap an R rating on the film. It’s in these details that Hairspray rewards and assuages the anxieties of Waters’ significant cult following.
But Hairspray doesn’t just replay Waters’ film, it extends and complicates the original parody. As Peter Marks observes in his review of the recently re-staged, Xanadu, “Parody, even of the most withering variety, works best when you can also feel the love.” Waters’ 1988 film parodied ‘50s nostalgia, ‘60s teen flicks, and by-the-numbers racial justice movies (in which white people save blacks). This Hairspray‘s director, Adam Shankman, plainly loves both Waters and the conventions he parodied, but complicates the “message” in politically pointed ways.
In 1988, the Civil Rights struggle of Waters’ film may have been closer in time and the minds of contemporary audiences, especially in the race-baiting era of Willie Horton, George H. W. Bush’s presidential propagandist bugbear. In 2007, segregationist politics may have been re-evoked by the recent Supreme Court ruling, but Shankman, along with screenwriters Leslie Dixon and Mark O’Donnell (in cahoots with Waters) connect Civil Rights struggle to other contemporary struggles for recognition, if not legal rights.
Hairspray connects racial discrimination to body prejudices, in particular, fatness. While Tracy’s largesse was targeted by the “normal” kids in Waters’ film, the persistent focus was racial conflict. In Shankman’s film, racism and fat-phobia are given equal attention, and are even seen as interconnected. In part this is foregrounded by surrounding not only Tracy, but also Edna Turnblad and Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) with socially scripted and condoned fat intolerance.
Tracy’s nemesis on The Corny Collins Show, the perfectly blond and pert Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her skeletal mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) viciously deride the larger women’s weight. their attacks reflecting current and past policing of nonstandard bodies. Hairspray, however, rejects such prejudice, as did Waters’ version, asserting the sexiness and sensuality of large women’s bodies. Teen heartthrob Link falls in love with Tracy not despite her weight, but because of it: her mass and fluidity make her a better dancer, with a kind of lusty grace the bony Amber could never achieve.
Tracy’s not the only object of desire. Hairspray overtly sexualizes its trio of large women, Tracy, Edna, and Motormouth Maybelle. Edna’s transformation is perhaps the most radical. After Tracy wins a spot on the teen council of the Corny Collins Show, she encourages her mother to join her out in the “real” world. Edna is hesitant; she hasn’t left the house in years, she says, and the neighbors haven’t seen her since she “was a size 10.” With Tracy’s help and a makeover from “Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway,” Edna is on her way to self-affirmation. Add to that Wilbur’s testament to her attractiveness and by the closing number of the film Edna is loud, self-confident, and flaunting her sex appeal.
A throwaway line early in Waters’ film—Rikki Lake’s confident assertion that she was “Big, blonde, and beautiful”—here becomes a musical number of the same name, variously sung by the three women (as Motormouth Maybelle sings it, “Who wants a twig when you can climb the whole tree?”), and the film’s most overt statement of fat-pride. Initiated and overseen by Maybelle, in her gold-patterned caftan and towering blonde wig, enticing Edna with southern-fried soul cooking, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” most directly connects racial discrimination and intolerance to other cultural prejudices.
Working together, Tracy, Edna, Maybelle, and their friends do change the world, or at least Baltimore… or at least The Corny Collins Show. In “Welcome to the ‘60s,” Tracy sings to her mother, “It’s changing out there. / People who are different, / Their time is coming.” Hairspray parodies and also loves this dewy-eyed optimism. In the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Tracy, Edna, and Maybelle each takes her turn leading the dance and shaking her assets, clad in skin-tight, glorious sequins. Even if racism and body intolerance persist in the “real” world, Hairspray invites us to indulge in the fantasy that, as Edna and Wilbur sing in their duet, “Styles keep a changing’ / The world’s re-arrangin.’” One of those changes, in the film’s world and maybe, hopefully, in ours, is that fat girls rule.