John Waters Revisited: Polyester

Throughout his career, John Waters had to walk a fine line, as he himself had acknowledged: “I’m certainly not going to make a Hollywood movie that will never be shown, but at the same time, I don’t calculate, I write what I think is funny, I don’t censor myself.” Waters is not willing to make a mainstream film devoid of black comedy, because it would then be “someone else’s obsessions, not mine.”

Gay Directors. By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press).

Waters’ agents don’t even send him scripts by other scribes, because they know that, like Almodovar and Haynes, he will only direct his own material. Waters has not developed acute technical skills, and so his narratives, characters and tone are far more important than their visual style or physical execution. Of the five directors in the book, Waters is the least technically adept, though in his defense it must be said, that he has never considered himself a craftsman.

In the 1980s, Waters’ films became less controversial and more mainstream. Works such as “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” and “Serial Mom,” still maintained some outrageous elements, but not the crass camp humor and shocking inventiveness of the earlier features.

If Waters ceased to be a subversive filmmaker, it’s because of his aging and softening process, and the fact that deep down he shares most of the bourgeois values he had satirized. Unlike some Jewish comedian and filmmakers, such as his contemporary Albert Brooks (“Lost in America”), Waters has never been an enraged agent or angry provocateur, because he may wish that life would be as simple or naïve as that in “Leave It to Beaver,” a show he has satirized too gently in “Serial Mom.”

Thus, after the underground gross-out trilogy, Waters made a bid for wider acceptance with “Polyester,” a black comedy. However, by standards of his previous work, the story and humor are too sedate, bordering on the trivial. “Polyester” became notable for two things. First, for casting faded movie star and former teen idol Tab Hunter (the blond beefcake of the 1950s), who had concealed his homosexuality. And second, for introducing a gimmick, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards called Odorama, which contained a range of stimuli matching the sensations experienced by Divine on screen.

Divine’s Francine Fishpaw is a housewife whose life has become hell. Her husband Elmer (David Samson) runs a porno theater that shows trash classics, such as “My Burning Bush.” A womanizer, Elmer has an affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole), a spoiled girl sporting Bo Derek-style cornrow braids whose real values are expressed when she tells Elmer, “Children would only get in the way of our erotic lifestyle!”

Francine has raised two ungrateful teenagers. Dexter (Ken King) sniffs glue and stomps on women’s feet, and Lulu (Mary Garlington) is a brazen slut who hangs out with the over-aged juvenile delinquent Bobo (Stiv Bators), gleefully awaiting her next abortion.

Francine’s best friend, Cuddles (Edith Massey), is an insane, delusional heiress convinced she’s still a debutante. Francine’s existence has become so miserable that even her dog commits suicide rather than witness her decline. But out of the blue, light strikes with the appearance of Todd Tomorrow (Hunter) and Francine throws herself into a torrid affair with the dashing beau. The owner of a local drive-in, Tomorrow is a symbol of high culture, because he shows art films like features by the French intellectual Marguerite Duras (author of “Hiroshima Mon Amour”).

Sporadically amusing, but not really foul or subversive, “Polyester” relied on “Odorama.” Spectators were given a card with ten scratch-and-sniff patches, to be smelled at key points in the action. Numbers flashing on the screen indicated which specific scents should be used, ranging from roses to dirty sneakers. Another element to lift the movie and give it a more distinctive feel is a romantic tune, sung by crooner Deborah Harry and Bill Murray, who was then popular on TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Though made as an effort to get out of the midnight movie ghetto, ultimately, Polyester was a commercial failure. Waters’ hardcore fans were disappointed, with some feeling that he had compromised his own standards.

In his defense, Waters said: “How could I have sold out? My movie stars a 300-pound transvestite and Tab Hunter!”

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).