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This week, it’s a doozy of a double header as we visit with the divinely (pun intended) garish world of John Waters with his irresistibly trashy Polyester (1981) and then take a trip (pun also intended) to the dizzying, visual splendor of Ken Russell’s musical satire The Boy Friend (1971).
Do not adjust your TVs, folks.
Jill’s Pick: POLYESTER (1981)
He’s known as the “King of Bad Taste” and the “Pope of Trash.” Yet wholesome middle-American families fully embrace his mainstream hit Hairspray (1988), blissfully unaware of the dogshit-eating Divine in Pink Flamingos (1972) or Edith Massey strutting around in a skin tight black jumpsuit in Female Trouble (1974). Whatever you call him or which film is your favorite (or marked as condemned on your own personal Legion of Decency list), one thing is for certain: John Waters is a national treasure.
After making Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, Waters took his regular acting troupe known as the Dreamlanders and made Polyester, a film that straddles the line between cult and mainstream.
Divine stars as Francine Fishpaw, wife of Elmer, the owner of an X-rated movie theater. The community is protesting Elmer’s business, but he relishes the bad press (any press is good press, right?). Francine, on the other hand, is struggling to maintain a quiet, suburban middle-class life. She discovers that Elmer is having an affair, demands a divorce, and sinks into an epic alcoholic bender. To add insult to injury, Francine’s children are total assholes. Her daughter is promiscuous and her son is a glue sniffer. Her lover, played by hunk-ahoy Tab Hunter, is not what he seems. The only person who is there for Francine in her time of need is her maid-turned-best friend, Cuddles (Edith Massey).
If you’re only familiar with Waters’ super popular Hairspray, you’re in for a real treat. Waters’ characters flaunt a pure and uninhibited spirit that, let’s be honest, resides deep down in all of us. Waters assures us it’s alright to be a little quirky, a little glitzy, and a whole lot trashy.
Carley’s Pick: THE BOYFRIEND (1971)
So … Ken Russell. There’s just no way around it, the man was a madman of a genius and that’s all there is to it. Russell’s film adaptation of the hit stage musical The Boy Friend (the stage production that launched Julie Andrews’ career) is like a Bob Fosse film on acid. Which is really saying something. It’s also a magical film–if not a bit excessive. Victim of an American release that more or less butchered it, The Boy Friend is a criminally overlooked component to Russell’s work, and Warner Archive Instant thankfully has the full ‘director’s cut’, with the omitted footage restored.
The film is a satirical homage to the old Hollywood musicals of the early ’30s, with a plot straight out of 42nd Street, complete with dream-like, mind-bending Busby Berkeley-esque sequences. A hopelessly untalented English repertory troupe is putting on a show–or at least, trying to. Polly (Twiggy) is a diminutive stage assistant who is hopelessly in love with the Tony Brockhurst (Christopher Gable), the handsome lead, and is forced into the cast after (what else?) the star breaks her leg. This simple story line is artfully explored by Russell, who uses the fantasy of the early movie musicals to explore Polly and Tony’s dreams and desires in a number of over-the-top musical numbers that, although outrageous are never overtly sensational. Russell may needle the Hollywood musical genre, but never out of disrespect. (In fact, there’s almost too much love here, owing to the lengthy 137 minutes.)
Also, let’s talk about Twiggy. She exudes a waifish innocence, down-to-earth charm, and her surprisingly sweet (and endearingly wobbly) melodic voice make it very easy to forget that she is in fact, well, Twiggy. She’s simply delightful and is the main reason to watch, apart from Russell’s kaleidoscopic am-I-tripping-or-did-I-really-just-see-that film making. (Which is perhaps the biggest compliment one could give him since that is precisely the reaction one gets when watching Berkeley.)