Divine: John Waters’ Late Great Star

Exactly forty years ago, John Waters burst into national prominence with “Pink Flamingos,” a bad-taste classic, which contains what became the most (in)famous scene of his movies: Divine stooping to eat dog excrement.   A new documentary, “I Am Divine,” now celebrates the late 300 pound transvestite, who became a pop culture icon and died in 1989.

What Made Waters Run: www.emanuellevy.com/comment/john-waters-revisited/

In the same movie, viewers are exposed to the spectacle of an “Egg Lady,” begging for poultry from her crib, and to the rape and murder of chicken.

“Pink Flamingos” is a transgressive black comedy, written, produced, directed, edited, and composed by Waters. For the score, he donated several of his personal single B-sides and hits of the 1950s and 1960s. Made on a shoe-string budget of $12,000, it was shot on weekends in a suburb of Baltimore. The shoot was a gratifying experience, both personally and collectively. The set was like a hippie community in Phoenix, Maryland: The cast and crew operated out of a farmhouse, without any hot water.

The movie has little to do with the tropical fowl that stand sentinel during the opening credits. “The reason I called it ‘Pink Flamingos’ was because the movie was so outrageous, that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters said. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.” It certainly did not reflect Waters’ personal background, whose home yard was done in good taste. His mother, the president of a garden club, cultivated flowerbeds and precise hedges. In their suburb, lawn ornaments, especially plastic pink flamingos, were anathema. “I don’t remember ever seeing a pink flamingo where I grew up,” the director mused. “I think I saw them in East Baltimore.”

“Pink Flamingos” made an underground star of Divine, a flamboyant 300-pound transvestite, Waters’ former high-school friend Harris Glenn Milstead. In the next decade, the duo developed what could be described as their version of the famous Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich relationship—without that couple’s explicit sex, gossipy intrigue, and sado-masochism.

Divine began his career as a joke, mocking the desire of drag queens to look pretty, but there was always rage in him, and occasionally outright hostility. “Divine was hassled and bullied a lot as a boy,” Waters recalled, “I’m proud that I gave him an outlet for his anger and revenge. The people that used to beat him up later stood in line and asked for his autograph.” This was the sweet smell of revenge–not to mention irony–for both director and his leading lady.

When “Pink Flamingos” was initially released, it caused controversy due to its perverse acts, all performed in explicit detail. After screenings at universities and basements across the U.S., the film was distributed theatrically by Saliva Films, and later by New Line Cinema. Over the years, it has become a “notorious” classic, and one of Waters’ most profitable pictures, grossing worldwide north of $10 million.

Divine plays Babs Johnson, a flashy criminal on the lam from the FBI, hiding out in a trailer where she lives with her obese dim-witted, egg-loving mother, Edie (Edith Massey), her degenerate and delinquent son, Crackers (Danny Mills), and her duplicitous traveling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pierce). This dysfunctional family shares residence in a trailer on the outskirts of Phoenix, Maryland, a site framed by two plastic pink flamingos. After learning that Babs has been named “the filthiest person alive” by a tabloid paper, her jealous rivals, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), set out to take the title away from her and destroy her career, only to be undone by Babs.

Well ahead of its times in subject matter, the plot depicts the Marbles as hateful managers of an “adoption clinic,” which is actually a black market baby ring. Their strategy is to kidnap young women, impregnate them by their gay servant, Channing (Channing Wilroy), and then sell their babies to lesbian couples that are found unfit for legal adoption. The proceeds are then turned into pornography and narcotics: They finance a network of drug dealers who sell heroin in inner-city schools. Raymond also makes money by exposing himself to women in parks, flaunting extra-large Kielbasa Weiners tied to his penis. When the ladies flee, outraged by the sight, Raymond steals their purses.

One of the film’s most infamous scenes describes the sex between Crackers and Cookie (a spy disguised as a date), while crushing a live chicken between them, and watched voyeuristically by Cotton. Cookie informs the Marbles about Babs’ upcoming birthday party, and they decide to send her a special gift, a box of human feces with a card addressing her as “Fatso,” and signed by “The Filthiest People Alive.” Divine seeks revenge on those who had stolen her cherished title.

When Channing dresses up as Connie and imitates her speech, the Marbles react with outrage, locking him in the closet. The guests are then treated to the sight of a topless dancer with a snake, and a contortionist who flexes his anal sphincter in rhythm to the song “Surfin’ Bird.” One guest, the Egg Man, who delivers eggs to Edie daily, proposes marriage and the two spend their honeymoon around the egg industry. The disgusted Marbles call the police, but Babs and the other party-goers kill the cops with the same axe that was among the presents; the other gifts include lice shampoo and a pig’s head. The guests then proceed to eat the corpse. Babs and Crackers head to the Marbles house, where they spread “filthiness” by rubbing items, an activity so erotic it leads to exciting oral sex. Licking the furniture, however, causes it to “reject” the less filthy Marbles when they return home; the cushions fly up, throwing their occupants to the floor. Divine and Crackers find Channing locked away, but they show no sympathy for him. They free the captive women, who then emasculate Channing (off-screen).

Connie and Raymond burn Divine’s trailer, but to their horror, they find out that Channing bled to death from his penis and that the two girls have been taken hostage by Divine at a gunpoint. Calling the tabloid media to witness the Marbles’ trial, Babs states her “filth politics”: “Blood does more than turn me on, Mr. Vader. It makes me come. And more than the sight of it, I love the taste of it. The taste of hot freshly killed blood. Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life! Take whatever you like.” Holding a “kangaroo court,” Divine sentences the Marbles to death for “first-degree stupidity” and “assholism.” Babs offers them opportunity to defend themselves, but they opt for execution. Tied to a tree, coated in tar and feathers, they are shot by Babs, thus handling the media a juicy scoop of reporting “live” homicide.
Babs, Crackers, and Cotton relocate their base to Boise, Idaho. The ending depicts the trio walking down the street in their new home, spotting a dog with excitement and hunger. When the canine defecates, Babs puts the feces in her mouth, proving, as the narrator states, that she is not only the filthiest person, but also the filthiest actress in the world. She then offers a shit-eating grin.
Waters’ grotesque film goes far into the bizarre and the extreme, but it also maintains strange endearment.

“I’ve never just tried to gross you out–not even at the end of ‘Pink Flamingos.’ I’m always trying to make you laugh first.” While refraining from making overt political statements, Waters’ films are not devoid of ideas. “I always have something to say, but I never get on a soapbox. The only way I can change how anybody thinks is to make them laugh. If I start preaching, they’ll walk out.”

Read Part Two

Pink Flamingos: Part Two