Cry-Baby (1990): John Waters’ Nostalgic Romp, Starring Johnny Depp

Cry_Baby_john_waters_posterAn endearing sweetness has colored and tempered all of Waters’ films since “Hairspray.”  There was only a two year-gap between “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby,” Waters’ next feature, which was less popular or consequential than “Hairspray.”

In depicting teen rebels and distraught parents, Waters softened his jabs considerably—he might have played it too safe. The then less-known Johnny Depp plays a 1950s teen rebel named Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker.  To find the right actor for the role, Waters bought numerous teen magazines, all of which showed on their covers Depp, then famous from the TV’s series “21 Jump Street.“

Depp thought that the script was funny and strange, and took the offbeat role to avoid being typecast as a TV teen idol. The feature’s large ensemble includes some of Waters’ regulars, such as Amy Locane and Ricki Lake, as well as many celebs, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Kim McGuire, David Nelson, Susan Tyrrell, and Patty Hearst. Though not successful in its initial release, “Cry Baby” later developed a small following and spawned a Broadway musical.

288a6od4e7qThe movie is a parody of 1950s teen musicals, brought back into the limelight in 1978 in the John Travolta-Olivia Newton John musical “Grease,”  which unexpectedly became a blockbuster and then a favorite entertainment in gay and straight festivals with its sing-along versions.  At the center is a group of delinquents, the “Drapes,” and their interaction with the opponent subculture, the “Squares.”  Call it “Romeo and Juliet,” or “West Side Story” in Baltimore of 1954.  “Cry-Baby” Walker, a Drape, and Allison, a Square, create upheaval by breaking taboos and falling madly in love.  The comedy depicts the obstacles that the couple has to overcome and the impact of their affair on the larger community.

Cry_Baby_john_waters_5Members of the “Drapes” include Walker’s teenage mom, his sister Pepper, the facially disfigured Mona “Hatchet Face” Malnorowski, the wild and free-spirited Wanda Woodward, and the nervous son of religious activists Milton Hackett. Once again, the film’s protagonist is different, if not downright outcast: Cry-Baby’s ability to shed a single tear drives all the girls wild. Cry-Baby invites Allison Vernon-Williams, a pretty girl tired of being a “Square,” to a party at Turkey Point, a local ”Drapes” hangout, where she’s relaxed enough to sing (“King Cry-Baby”).  The couple’s bond is based on shared misery, their orphaned lives. Cry-Baby’s father was sent to the electric chair, accused of being the “Alphabet Bomber,” a killer who bombed places in alphabetical order, airports, barber shops, etc.  As for Allison’s parents, they used to take separate flights to avoid disastrous orphaning, should their aircrafts crash, until one day both of their planes went down at the same time.

Cry_Baby_john_waters_4Allison’s jealous boyfriend Baldwin starts a riot, for which Cry-Baby is wrongly accused and sent to jail, forcing Allison to return to the Squares.  In the penitentiary, Cry-Baby endures a teardrop tattoo with pride, telling the tattoo artist, Drape Dupree (Robert Tyree): “I’ve been hurt all my life, but real tears wash away.  This one’s for Allison, and I want it to last forever!”  Allison’s campaign for Cry-Baby’s release (“Please, Mr. Jailer”), forces Baldwin to admit that it was his grandfather who electrocuted Cry-Baby’s father. Free of his past chains, Cry-Baby is now able to cry with both eyes.

The film is peppered by cameo appearances from celebs and haves-been, in and out of the industry. Troy Donahue, a blonde heartthrob of romantic melodramas (“A Summer Place” with Sandra Dee, “Parrish”), and Waters’ regular Mink Stole play Mr. and Mrs. Malnorowski, Hatchet-Face’s parents who sell cigarettes to the pupils.

Cry_Baby_john_waters_1Porn star Joe Dallesandro, who made his name in the Warhol and Morrissey films, and Joey Heatherton are ironically cast as Mr. and Mrs. Hackett, Milton’s overzealous parents.  David Nelson (Hope Lange’s good and loyal boyfriend in “Peyton Place”) and Patricia Hearst play Mr. and Mrs. Woodward, Wanda’s happy-go-lucky parents.

Cry_Baby_john_waters_3Waters’ gleefully campy spectacle provided Depp a vehicle to lampoon his pin-up image.  More technically polished than “Hairspray,” but less focused, funny, or biting, “Cry Baby” failed, despite Depp’s charming performance.

Ironically, Depp became a major star that same year, after appearing in Tim Burton’s lyrical fable, “Edward Scissorhands,” a Christmas release that was both a critical and commercial success.  Financed by Universal, and getting the widest distribution of any Waters film to date, “Cry-Baby” was released in 1990 in 1,229 theaters, but it only grossed $8.3 million, thus deemed a box-office disappointment vis-a-vis its large budget of $13 million.

Cry_Baby_john_waters_2“Cry-Baby” was the second Waters film, after “Hairspray,” to be adapted into a stage musical.  However, as expected, the critics compared it unfavorably to “Hairspray,” the 1988 film and the 2008 stage show.