By Gary M. Kramer.
John Waters has achieved respectability (again). After 2016’s successful Criterion Collection release of Multiple Maniacs, the premier film snob’s publisher of classics on Blu-ray/DVD has now issued a new 4K digital restoration of his 16mm masterpiece, Female Trouble, from 1974. The original film’s grainy quality gains benefits from the high definition Blu-ray transfer to recount the life and times of Baltimore’s Dawn Davenport (Divine in arguably her best role). A troubled teen, she gets snitched on in high school for passing notes and eating a meatball sandwich in class. She wants cha-cha heels for Christmas, but her parents disappoint her, and an enraged Dawn topples the Christmas tree pinning her mother (Betty Woods) and fleeing from home. Dawn’s life is no better out on the streets. She is raped by Earl Peterson (Divine, in a remarkable double role), a man who has no intention of supporting Dawn or the baby they conceived. Alas, Dawn, on her own, gives birth; she even has to bite the umbilical cord of her bastard daughter, Taffy.
Waters gleefully features many of his favorite themes in Female Trouble. He pays homage to juvenile delinquent films, “women’s pictures” with sacrificing mothers, a child who resembles Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” (one of Waters’ favorite films), as well as lesbian jailhouse movies, crime cinema, melodramas, and more. He is able to celebrate his characters and satirize society at the same time, which is why the film works so beautifully. Watching Female Trouble now, the film looks ahead of its time.
Waters, of course, casts his Dreamland players – Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller, and of course, Edith Massey, among others – in roles that he likely wrote especially for them. The flat affectation in their performances enhances rather than distracts from the film’s enjoyment. Moreover, the lines these campy actors deliver are frequently hilarious, as when one character tells Dawn, “Your face makes Mona Lisa look like a numbers painting,” or another cracks, “I was hoping the next time I’d see you would be at your funeral.”
Female Trouble is also a triumph of set design/art direction, hairdos, and costumes. The wallpaper patterns and colors in Dawn’s apartment and other interiors are outlandishly gaudy. Dawn sports a series of eye-popping outfits, such as a pair of tight silver pants that make her ass look like it could double as a disco ball. One sheer orange get-up is too tight or too small; Divine’s ass actually hangs out of it. And then there is Dawn’s wedding dress, which clearly displays her pubic hair. (Hell, even Divine’s Earl costumes are hilarious; when Earl rapes Dawn, his underwear is badly shit-stained).
Such is the fine-grained detail Waters goes to for his art. But it is the film’s central plot about beauty and crime that makes Female Trouble so engaging. After a failed marriage to Gater (Michael Potter), Dawn becomes involved with Gater’s employers, Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), a couple who own the exclusive, invitation-only beauty salon where Gater works. The Dashers want to photograph Dawn performing crimes. They get her high shooting up liquid eyeliner in one of the film’s clever jokes. While an initial photo shoot goes well, Gater’s vengeful Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) turns up and throws acid in Dawn’s face, scarring her for life. (One reason Ida has such rage towards Dawn is that she wants her nephew Gater to marry a nice gay man and not work in an office, have children, or celebrate wedding anniversaries. “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life,” she proclaims in one of the film’s most pointed social commentaries.)
However, the Dashers think Dawn looks beautiful with the disfiguring facial scars and insist she continue to model unchanged to achieve fame (and by extension, fortune). The film’s points about fame and notoriety play into the last act, where Dawn goes on a criminal spree, shooting members of the audience at her public performance. Her actions lead to a trial, a jailhouse romance with a female inmate, and – spoiler alert – death by the electric chair. These vignettes are all played in an over-the-top style that creates maximum laughs if not emotion.
The commentary on what is beauty is at the heart of the film, as Waters provides all kinds of examples to show how good bad taste can be. Dawn comes home one day to find her daughter Taffy (Mink Stole, an adult plays her as a teenager) smearing ketchup on herself during a game of “car accident.” Dawn is seen performing as a stripper for a group of amused old men. There is even a moment of a scarred Dawn, in a tight, leopard-print outfit, dancing down the streets of Baltimore capturing the attention of onlookers. But perhaps the film’s purest, most joyful moment has Dawn bouncing up and down on a trampoline during her one-woman stage show before her shooting rampage.
Female Trouble also contains some crude moments of sex and violence. Dawn’s bedroom activities with Gater include him shoving a carrot in her mouth during his orgasm, and later fucking her with needle nose pliers. Dawn keeps Gater’s Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) in a cage and chops her hand off with an ax. And Taffy, desperate to meet Earl, not only fends off his unwanted incestuous sexual advances (and filthy penis), but also murders him. There is explicit full-frontal nudity, and some tacky violence that may prompt viewers to consider: Is it funny, dirty, naughty, or offensive?
Ultimately, it is all of the above. Female Trouble is outrageous, but it is also outrageously entertaining.
The Criterion blu-ray includes Waters’ 2004 audio commentary; an interview between Waters and Derek Lim; new and archival interviews with the cast; a 1975 interview with Waters and cast members; Deleted and alternative scenes; documentary footage; and an essay by Ed Halter.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.