Hairspray (1988): John Waters Best Film?

After enjoying underground notoriety in the 1970s and a nearly decade of idleness in the 1980s, Waters experienced the sweet smell of success in 1988 with “Hairspray,” a surprise hit that, among many merits, introduced to the public the charms of the comedienne Ricki Lake. Commercially successful, the film earned $8 million domestically, which is more than the combined box-office gross of all of Waters’ pictures until then. Waters’ first film in seven years, “Hairspray” deals with one of the few obsessions that was palatable to the studios.  He altered his offensive subversive style with a musical comedy that cast that relied on faded stars and offbeat celebrities for camp pursuits.

The first Waters film to receive PG rating, “Hairspray” (one of my three favorite Waters features) was a suitable family fare, despite the weird hairdos.  The lavish $2.6 million budget brought about changes in the working procedures, as Waters recalled: “It allowed for cappuccino in the editing room.  I didn’t have to pick up the cast in the morning.  And when it rained, the cast got ponchos.”

Inspired by an essay in one of his books, “Hairspray” dissects the arrival of racial integration in Baltimore through a local teenage program, “The Corny Collins Show,” based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.  In this sweet-tempered spoof, Ricki Lake plays Tracy Turnblad, a chubby teen who rockets to stardom as the new queen of the show. When Tracy’s friend Penny Pingleton, auditions for the show, she is too nervous and stumbles over her answers.  Another girl, Nadine, is excluded due to race—she is asked to attend the show’s “Negro Day,” on the last Thursday of every month.  Despite her overweight, Tracy becomes a regular on the show, which infuriates the reigning queen, Amber Von Tussle, a mean, privileged classmate whose pushy stage parents, Velma and Franklin Von Tussle, own the Tilted Acres amusement park (based on Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park). Things get worse, when Tracy steals Amber’s boyfriend, Link Larkin, and competes for the title of Miss Auto Show.

Hired as a model for the Hefty Hideaway clothing store, Tracy is inspired to bleach, tease, and rat her hair into a new style.  But at school, a teacher brands her look “hair-don’t” and sends her to the principal.  Assigned to special education classes, Tracy meets black classmates, who are placed there to hold them back academically. Those students introduce Tracy to Motormouth Maybelle, an R&B record shop owner and host of the monthly “Negro Day.”  While Tracy learns new dances, Penny begins an interracial romance with Motormouth Maybelle’s son, Seaweed. This horrifies Penny’s tyrannical mother Prudence, who imprisons her at home in an effort to brainwash her into dating white boys.

By Waters’ criteria, “Hairspray” is upbeat and optimistic: Tracy uses her new fame for the worthy cause of racial integration. The Von Tussles grow more defiant in their opposition to integration, plotting to sabotage the Miss Auto Show 1963 pageant with a bomb placed in Velma’s bouffant hairdo. However, the bomb’s premature detonation leads to the Von Tussles’ arrest after it lands on Amber’s head. Tracy, who had won the crown but was disqualified for being in reform school, is pardoned by the governor.  In the joyous closure, Tracy integrates the show by inviting everyone to dance.

Stretching her range, Divine is cast in two roles, as Tracy’s agoraphobic and overweight mother, Edna Turnblad, and as the nasty male TV station owner, Arvin Hodgepile. As always, the film is also peppered by cameos from real-life celebs, such as Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono and pop star Debbie Harry.  As noted, Waters has appeared in some of his own pictures.  In “Hairspray,” he cast himself as Dr. Fredrickson, the quack and bigot psychiatrist who recommends electroshock therapy for a white girl who’s in love with a black guy.  (This horrific therapy is treated in a serious way in some of Todd Haynes’ melodramas).

“Hairspray” is more than just a nostalgic romp filled with ratted hairdos and goofy hits.  Based on Waters’ watching, and occasionally appearing, on “The Buddy Deane Show” its plot reveals the director’s interest in the incendiary politics of style.  When Tracy is radicalized by the school’s all-white policy, she doesn’t join the Weathermen, she begins ironing her hair. “When the straight-hair fashion first hit our neighborhood, it caused panic,” Waters recalled.  “Your whole values changed. Hair was politics.  If you had ironed hair, you became a hippie, and if you kept your teased hair, you got married at twenty and had four kids.”

“Hairspray” was turned into a Broadway hit musical in 2002, sweeping most of the Tony Awards.  A film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in July 2007 to positive reviews and commercial success, earning more than $200 million worldwide.  For personal reasons, “Hairspray” assumes a special place in Waters’ work—and heart.  This was Ricki Lake’s first Waters feature and Divine’s last. The scene in “Hairspray,” when Lake and Divine come out of a beauty parlor was symbolic, sort of passing the torch from one generation of “divas” to the next.  (Other founding members of Waters’ troupe, Edith Massey, David Lochary, and Cookie Mueller, have also died over the past decade).