On Wednesday we’ll be discussing the 1974 cult film, Female Trouble. I know, I know. It’s going to be good radio. What’s lost on this generation is not only who John Waters is, but even those who know may not be aware that his films weren’t all as silly-camp as Hairspray and Cry-Baby. This one is one outrageously lurid look at society’s obsession with crime and the undue pressures the world puts on working women. Waters grabs these themes and spins with them a trashy camp parable about child abuse, murder, and fascist hairdressers. It’s a hell of a ride.
Succeeding such now-infamous classics as Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble is the mark of a director’s evolution. It’s steeped in poor taste, up-close male nudity and altogether revolting imagery like each of his previous works, but this is the first time that Waters is out to make a statement. Parallelling the marginalization of his queer cast-members, Waters invokes the divine inspiration of such marginalized genres as the melodrama, drive-in sleaze and the most amateur of pornos. With these, he crafts a stellar and wholly unique narrative.
Waters’ muse Divine shines as well here as Dawn Davenport and her alcoholic, shack-dwelling baby-daddy Earl Peterson. It’s arguably the first time that he flexes his acting chops. “It is undeniably a Divine movie,” says Ed Halter in his “Female Trouble: Spare Me Your Morals” essay for the film’s Criterion release. “In the same way one might speak of a Bette Davis movie, a Marilyn Monroe movie, or a Jayne Mansfield movie.” Over the course of ninety minutes, Dawn Davenport goes from truant teenager to long-suffering single mother to stone-cold criminal. At last, as John Waters famously said, she has a role she can sink her teeth into. The two went on to make audience favorites Polyester and Hairspray together, but there’s a case to be made that Female Trouble is their magnum opus.
But what makes the film especially interesting to me is not only its singular, kitchen-knife-carved notch in queer history, but also the strange relationship between auteur and art. As much as Female Trouble pokes fun at the crime-obsessed masses who feign disgust when actual crime rolls into their lives, Waters himself had something of an infamous obsession with the women of the Manson family murders when the film had run out. While he’s matured in his later years, he still dedicated Pink Flamingos to them, and by the time Female Trouble rolled around, his mentality hadn’t changed much.
We’ll discuss these points and many more on Reel Live at 2pm Wednesday, June 29th. And again at midnight the 30thh We’ll see you there for a myriad of nasty one-liners, endlessly quotable quotes, and to find out if Cully will ever forgive me for making him watch this.