[4 August 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In his second certifiable masterpiece, John Waters decides to take on the growing cult of public personality by marrying his fixation with classic Hollywood trash (ala Douglas Sirk) with the increasing public fascination with true crime. The result is a movie that masquerades as a melodrama, but actually becomes a truly twisted gem. In this oddball homage to the kitchen sink saga, Dawn Davenport is a juvenile delinquent, who runs away from home on Christmas. She is picked up and raped by a mechanic named Earl, and ends up giving birth to a daughter, Taffy. Living life as a petty thief, Dawn meets a hairdresser named Gator and they marry over the objection of his fag hag Aunt Ida. Gator works at The Lipstick Beauty Salon, run by Donna and Donald Dasher. They instantly see Dawn as their next big “discovery,” They have a twisted concept that crime is “beautiful” and want this eager gal to be their outlaw model. Thus begins a felonious spree that leads Dawn to a decisive day in court.
Female Trouble is Waters first real “film” in every one of the traditional senses. Told in episodic fashion (complete with tacky title cards), it proved that this otherwise underground king of bad taste could work within the confines of the traditional narrative form. Before, his films always had the kind of clothes-hanger plots made famous by porno and exploitation. But Female Trouble relies on its story for its momentum as well as its merriment. Without the rise up and flame out of our heroine, we’d never experience many of the movie’s most hilarious ideals.
This is also the first time when Waters’ main muse, Divine, came into her own as an actress. Before, she was simply sheer shock value, a big blousy man in Elizabeth Taylor tatters hoping to overwhelm the audience with her audacity. Here, Divine is Dawn Davenport. Her exchanges with daughter Taffy (the always amazing Mink Stole) are priceless, and when Divine does a derivation of her infamous stage act for the film—involving a trampoline, contemptible claims, and lots and lots of fish tossing—we feel it is part of Dawn’s demented nature. The entire subplot involving Gator and his overbearing Aunt seals the deal. Edith Massey’s pro-gay rants are out of this world, and she delivers them with such good-natured cheer that you want her nephew to ‘switch’ just to make her happy. Combined with Waters’ own private peculiarities, Female Trouble becomes an outsider opus that deserves mainstream popularity.