Waters Revisited: Desperate Living

Billed as “a lesbian melodrama about revolution,” “Desperate Living” was again disliked by most mainstream critics. Janet Maslin described the picture in the New York Time as “a pointlessly ugly movie that finds high humor among low life.” In this tale, again, Waters poignantly ridicules bourgeois manners.

The credit sequence features a dead rat served on fine china at a fancily-set dinner table (perhaps as homage to Bette Davis’ notorious scene of serving a dead rat to Joan Crawford in Robert Aldrich’s 1962 cult horror film, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”).

This is the only feature that Waters made without Divine prior to the actor’s death. Divine was touring in a live show and couldn’t fit the movie into his schedule. Another regular was absent, David Lochary, due to drug-addiction. Waters said, “The reason that David wasn’t in ‘Desperate Living’ is because of PCP. That’s all there’s to it, and he knows it too.”

Mink Stole plays Peggy Gravel, a released mental patient not ready yet to face the harsh reality of the outside world. (Almodovar has a similar character, albeit a male, in several of his movies, including “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” with Antonio Banderas). A neurotic suburban housewife, Peggy lives with her overweight maid, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill).

Early on, Peggy announces: “I have never found the antics of deviates to be one bit amusing.” And, of course, the story that follows goes on to prove the opposite of her statement. When children accidentally knock a baseball through her window, Peggy accuses them of trying to kill her. When the phone rings and it’s the wrong number, she hysterically charges, “How can you ever repay the 30 seconds you have stolen from my life?” When Peggy’s husband Bosley (George Stover) tries to give her a sedative, she orders the obese housekeeper to sit on his face until he suffocates.

Going on the lam, Peggy and Grizelda are arrested by a cross-dressing policeman (Turkey Joe), who gives them an ultimatum, go to jail or exile to Mortville, ruled by the evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). The women choose Mortville, but not before having sex in prison. They become associates of the lesbian wrestler Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), who desires sex-change operation to please her lover, Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay), charged with placing a baby in the fridge. Mortville’s outcasts–criminals, sex offenders, nudists–aim to overthrow Queen Carlotta. The Queen banishes her own daughter Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), after she elopes with a garbage collector (George Figgs); he’s later killed by the guards. Coo-Coo hides in Peggy and Grizelda’s house with her dead lover.

When Peggy betrays Coo-Coo, Grizelda fights the guards and loses her life. Joining the Queen in terrorizing her subjects, Peggy infects them with rabies. The tyrannical Queen, clad in tutu, forces her denizens to eat cockroaches. Unable to take the abuse anymore, the populace, led by Mole, overthrows Carlotta and execute Peggy by shooting into her anus. To celebrate their freedom, they roast Carlotta and serve her on a dinner platter with an apple in her mouth.

For this film, Waters recruited actors from outside his immediate circle. Liz Renay was a convicted felon and author of the memoir, “My Face for the World to See,” which was referenced in “Female Trouble.“ Casting Renay marked a trend of casting in his films both famous and notorious celebs, such as Patricia Hearst and Traci Lords.

Initially rejected for theatrical distribution in the U.K., the movie was finally released there on video in 1990, after the eyeball-gouging scene was trimmed. In later years, the movie became a cause celebre. The Marilyn Manson band paid tribute to it in their 1994 album, “Portrait of an American Family.” One of album’s tracks has a recording of Mink Stole’s Peggy shouting at the children: “Go home to your mother! Doesn’t she ever watch you? Tell her this isn’t some Communist daycare center! Tell your mother I hate her!”

“Desperate Living” has a Byzantine-like plot, laced with touches of a cheap porno. Waters himself later conceded that the problem with “Desperate Living” was that, “everyone was insane and there was nobody for the audience to identify with.” Waters knew that his humor was more poignant when placed in broader context, when eccentric performers like Divine or Mink Stole are positioned against straighter, or at least “slightly more normal,” persona.