Female Trouble (1974): John Waters’ Cult Movie

female_trouble_john_waters_posterAfter Pink Flamingos, Waters’ next two features, “Female Trouble” (1974) and “Desperate Living (1977) reinforced his outlaw reputation with their satiric skewering of middle-class suburbanism, the dominant mode of American life. Richer in ideas, and better produced, these films reflect Waters’ worldview whose elements would recur in his other movies.

It’s a stretch to use the word epic in describing any of Waters’ features, but due to its two-generational plot and character evolution, “Female Trouble” represents an epic of sorts. “Female Trouble” follows the foibles and fables of one woman from juvenile delinquency to motherhood to dubious arts career to outright criminal. It spotlights Divine in a dual role, as the headline-seeking outlaw, and as her illicit welder-lover. Waters’ original idea for a title was “Rotten Face, Rotten Mind,” though “Female Trouble” is more apt and catchy. Like “Pink Flamingos,” the affront to bourgeois morality relies on gross-out effects, but this film also displays sharper ideas and more acutely defined characters, resulting in a more biting satire.

Over the years, Waters has created screen characters with alliterated names, including Corny Collins, Donald and Donna Dasher, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Rickettes, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.   It has become a popular trivia-pursuit to guess the origins of his characters’ names–Ursula Udders may be the easiest of the bunch. In “Female trouble,” the heroine is DD, Dawn Davenport.

female_trouble_john_waters_5Holding up better than Waters’ other films, “Female Trouble” has a shapelier narrative and linear plot, attributes that are missing from most of his pictures. After the bold Main Titles, the text is divided into 23 segments, Youth, Cha Cha Heels, Dawn Meets Earl, Pregnant, Career Girl, Early Criminal, Aunt Ida, Lipstick Beauty Salon, Married Life, 5 Years Later, Dawn’s Big Break, Gator’s Goodbye, A Smashing Dinner Party, New Look for Dawn, Model of the Year, Taffy’s Daddy, Show Business, A Painful Homelife, Superstar Nightclub, Dawn’s Act, The Trial, Dawn’s Big Day, and Final Curtain Call.

Set in 1960, the tale begins with Dawn as a juvenile troublemaker in a Baltimore all-girls school. The rebellious teenager receives a failing grade sentence of essay-writing for fighting, cheating, and eating in class, among many violations. On Christmas Day, when Dawn does not get the cha-cha heel shoes, she breaks into a violent rage and pushes her mother into the Christmas tree. “I hate you! I hate this house! I hate Christmas!” she screams before storming out. Hitchhiking, Dawn is picked up by Earl Peterson (also played by Divine), a chubby man in his Edsel Station Wagon. Earl drives her to a dump where they have sex on a dirty mattress by the roadside. Sex in Waters films is never depicted appealingly, because in most cases it does not express love, passion, or desire—in sharp contrast to sexual acts in Almodovar’s oeuvre.

Realizing she’s pregnant, Dawn demands money, but Earl tells her, “Go fuck yourself.” Waters later joked that Divine had indeed done that, because he played both roles.[i] In 1983, another midnight cult flick, “Liquid Sky,” got attention for depicting the model Anne Carlisle playing a sex scene with herself, but Waters always claimed to be the first! To grant it a semblance of realism, Dawn’s birth-giving was shot at the very end, to take advantage of actress Susan Lowe’s actual birth-giving. The umbilical cord that Dawn cuts with her teeth was fashioned out of prophylactics filled with liver, showing the baby doused in fake blood.

female_trouble_john_waters_4Mocking the generic code of epic biopics, a title card announces, “Dawn as Career Girl, 1961-1967.” To make ends meet, Dawn takes various jobs, as waitress, dancer, hooker, and petty thief, but she is not good in any of them. Cut to 1968, when Taffy (Hilary Taylor), now age eight and already difficult, is subjected to beating by her mother with a car antenna. When Dawn complains about her exhausting duties, her mates, Chicklette (Susan Walsh) and Concetta (Cookie Mueller), suggest a new hairdo from the stylist Gator (Michael Potter). Occupying a prominent place in most of Waters’ movies, hair-style would become the very subject of his likable picture, “Hairspray.” The particular hairdo chosen always signals an ideological statement, not just a fashion trend.

Dawn becomes a client at the Lipstick Beauty Salon owned by the Dashers, husband Donald (David Lochary) and wife Donna (Mary Vivian Pearce). A brief courtship by Gator leads to marriage, but five years later, the bliss is strained due to Taffy’s (now played by Mink Stole) hatred of Gator. When Taffy catches her parents in bed, Gator invites her to join them, which gives Taffy the occasion to deliver the movie’s most-quoted line: “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” It is addressed to a hairdresser (a typically gay profession in movies), who even lacks the style to be gay. Gator’s obese Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) bemoans: “Honey, I wish you was queer, heterosexuality is a boring lifestyle.”

female_trouble_john_waters_3The movie displays shock for shock’s sake—Waters was only 27 when he made the picture, and the success of “Pink Flamingos” might have encouraged him to break other taboos. Upping the ante, “Female Trouble” contains frontal nudity with shots of Gator’s penis in flaccid form, but the images are deliberately non-erotic. Fed up with Gator’s cheating, and bored by their sex–he penetrates her with hammers and pliers–Dawn leaves him. Seeking solace at the Lipstick Beauty Salon, Dawn is urged by the diabolical Dashers to become a “glamorous guinea pig,” in an experiment testing Jean Genet’s theory that “crime equals beauty.” It is noteworthy, that in one way or another, Genet has inspired all five directors in the book—each has made explicit or implicit references to the writer’s oeuvre or his criminal career. Dawn obediently performs criminal acts, such as knocking her daughter unconscious with a chair, while not neglecting posing for a photo shoot by the Dashers.

female_trouble_john_waters_2The plot piles up one contrived sequence after another, but with more concern with continuity than is the norm in Waters’ pictures. Ida bursts into Dawn’s house and disfigures her face with acid, but at the hospital, the hideously-looking Dawn is reassured that she is still pretty and needs no plastic surgery. Upon return, Dawn discovers that her home had been redecorated by the Dashers. Taffy pleads with her mother to disclose her father’s identity and she reluctantly does so. (It’s probably a coincidence that this is the premise of Almodovar’s 1999 masterpiece, “All About My Mother”). The drunkard father, who lives in a dilapidated house, sexually assaults Taffy, and she stabs him with a butcher knife. (This scene might have been inspired by “Peyton Place,” in which Selena Cross, played by Hope Lange, kills her brutish stepfather after repeated rapes).

Unfazed, Dawn creates a nightclub act that includes jumping on a trampoline and wallowing in a playpen with dead fish. Waters was proud that Divine performed all the stunts, including the difficult flips on a trampoline, based on extensive training at the YMCA. When Taffy joins the Hare Krishna movement, sporting grotesque hair and outlandish outfits, Dawn strangles her to death. Convinced that she had fully embracing Genet’s philosophy, Dawn now sees beauty as an art form intricately born out of crime. The usual Waters’ exclamatory statement follows: “I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abbie Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck, and I’m so fuckin’ beautiful.”

Screaming, “Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?” Dawn shoots into the crowds. Arrested by the police, she is put on trial, in which the Dashers are granted “total immunity” in exchange for their testimony. The phonies claim to be shocked by Dawn’s crimes, even though they had engineered it and provided the axe for amputating Ida’s hand. Found guilty, Dawn gets the electric chair, but not wasting time, she has a casual affair in prison with another mate (Elizabeth Coffey).

female_trouble_john_waters_1True to her nature–and to Waters’ worldview–Dawn perceives the execution akin to “Winning an Academy Award,” an act that will finally immortalize her. Strapped to electric chair, Dawn renders deliriously her Oscar acceptance speech: “I’d like to thank all the wonderful people that made this great moment in my life come true. My daughter Taffy, who died in order to further my career. My friends Chicklette and Concetta, who should be here with me today. All the fans who died so fashionably and gallantly at my nightclub act. And especially all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspapers and watch me on the TV news. Without all of you, my career could never have gotten this far. It was you that I burn for, and it is you that I will die for! Please remember, I love every fucking one of you! “ Dawn’s fantasy is fulfilled, when her distorted face is shown in a freeze frame as the end credits roll. Waters may have been paying tribute to Francois Truffaut’s legendary freeze-frame of his alter-ego as a boy at the end of “The 400 Blows.” Waters has relished that final shot of Divine the same way he did the infamous doggie shot in “Pink Flamingos.”

In “Female Trouble,” Waters shows concern with the media morbid fascination with lurid crimes, exploiting criminals for commercial (TV ratings) reasons by turning them into instant celebs–never mind that he himself can be charged with perpetuating this trend by popularizing the notion in his films. Even so, Waters was disappointed that many critics dwelled on the gross-out effects and grotesque characters rather than the film’s satirical ideas. After seeing “Female Trouble,” the critic Rex Reed, representing other peers of his kind, groaned: “Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?”

Waters said that he wanted to caress with both needles and thorns the “Uptown” viewers with his “Downtown” underground sensibility. He knew that curious art-house denizens, wishing to demonstrate open-mindedness, considered it cool to watch “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble,” without walking out during the screenings. The hipsters have always considered Waters’ movies as must-see events. But there were also spectators, known pejoratively as “the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd,” who bothered to take the time and the train to see the movie. No doubt, in the 1970s, attending a Waters movie was a cultural event imbued with ideological statement, going way beyond the set of particular ideas and images that made up “Female Trouble.”

This movie expanded Waters’ circle of fans, as the influential journalist Michael Musto attests: “I caught a double bill of ‘Pink Flamingos’ and ‘Female Trouble’ at Cinema Village. That double bill changed my life. It was punk. It was raunchy. It was outrageous. It was glamorous. It was exciting.   I was vomiting and rolling in the aisles at the same time.” (Remember what Waters has said about vomiting?)