Polyester at 40: Appreciating John Waters’ Gonzo Test Run of Subversion and Slapstick

Movies Features John Waters
Polyester at 40: Appreciating John Waters’ Gonzo Test Run of Subversion and Slapstick

Forty years ago this month, John Waters, a man who notoriously ended a movie with its star snacking on freshly made dogshit, broke into the mainstream. The filmmaker wanted to prove he wasn’t just a tacky, trashy, tasteless provocateur. So, he came with Polyester, his first R-rated, 35mm movie that’s still filled to the brim with tacky, trashy, tasteless, provocative moments. I mean, it’s a movie where a character proudly exclaims, “I had a miscarriage—but I discovered macramé!”

Waters’s longtime muse, the late drag diva Divine, stars as Francine Fishpaw, the heavily underappreciated matriarch of a very disreputable family. Her philandering husband (David Samson) is a porno-theater owner who has picketers outside his doorstep, while their glue-sniffing son (Ken King) spends his days stomping on women’s feet (apparently a real fetish, according to Waters) and their wild daughter (Mary Garlington) cavorts with a skeevy thug (Stiv Bators, the late frontman for the punk band The Dead Boys).

Set, as always, in and around Waters’ Baltimore hometown, Polyester has Waters returning to the suburbs—a lame land he fled during his younger, rebellious days—and basically starting a ruckus. Unlike the eccentric, downtrodden locales Waters used in previous films, he mostly filmed Polyester in a two-story house in an actual suburban neighborhood. And although Waters said most of the neighbors (whom he hired as extras) were cool with him filming in their freshly mowed cul-de-sac, I’m sure they were annoyed by the usually loud, over-the-top antics he was filming day and night.

Made for a whopping $300,000—Waters’ largest budget at that time (his career-defining midnight movie Pink Flamingos, which featured the aforementioned shit-eating finale, was made for $12,000)—and released by New Line Cinema, Polyester was Waters’ opportunity to show his transgressive brand of movie comedy could put asses in multiplex seats. He did this by bringing back a long-dormant movie gimmick: Smell-O-Vision. (Since this is a Waters film, he called it Odorama.) Unlike when theaters pumped in scents during the 1960 film Scent of Mystery—the only film to use Smell-O-Vision—Waters’ approach to getting folks to smell the movie was simpler. He had theaters hand out cards with 10, numbered scratch-and-sniff scents. Whenever a number was displayed on the bottom, left-hand side of the screen, that was the audience’s cue to start scratching. (When the Criterion Collection released Polyester on laserdisc in 1994 and DVD & Blu-ray in 2019, they kept the scratch-and-sniff party going by including an Odorama card with each disc.) Waters made sure the gimmick played into the movie’s plot by giving Francine the olfactory senses of a bloodhound, immediately detecting whatever pungent scent—pizza, gasoline, her husband’s flatulence—that’s numbered on the card.

Waters has said the movie was inspired by the schlocky cinema of producer William Castle, who famously employed gimmicky techniques to freak out audiences during his horror films. (Waters also said he was inspired by bad reviews of his previous films, especially the ones that brought up stinkiness.) Since this is a “women’s picture,” there is an obvious Douglas Sirk influence, especially in the shadowy way Waters lights his scenes. But one can’t help but think that Polyester might also be Waters doing his own twisted take on the acclaimed, frustrated-housewife films, like Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, that came out the decade before.

Unlike those intense melodramas, Polyester has a protagonist whose descent into domestic despair is generally played for outrageous laughs. When her family’s madness becomes too much to bear, she starts drinking hard—we’re talking stashing bottles all over the damn house. But salvation (or so she thinks) comes in the form of a mysterious, Corvette-driving playboy (Tab Hunter) who sweeps her off her feet. There’s even a montage of them doing romantic, outdoor stuff, set to a love song performed by none other than Bill Murray. (The song was written by Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who also collaborated with veteran movie composer Michael Kamen on the score.)

Polyester may have been Waters’s first taste of working with seasoned actors like Hunter, but he still found roles for his “Dreamlanders” crew of repertory players, including Mink Stole (as Francine’s husband’s mistress, rocking Bo Derek’s iconic cornrows from 10) and the late Edith Massey (as Francine’s former maid-turned-wealthy best friend).

Just like the more grotesque-minded David Lynch, Waters is a filmmaker who has always taken wicked glee in exposing the weird, perverse, unspeakable shit lurking underneath the façade of “normal” America. He also enjoys bringing it all out in the open, which he does oh-so-hysterically in Polyester, right down to the gaudy furnishings in the Fishpaw residence and the purposely kitschy wardrobe. Shout-out to the superb work by costume designer Van Smith, art director Vincent Peranio and set designer Beth Sheldon. As someone who lived through the early ’80s, they perfectly captured how most of it was a goddamn eyesore.

Even when he’s out to create legit popcorn cinema, Waters still can’t help but go there in Polyester. There’s a whole outlandish subplot where Francine’s daughter gets pregnant and tries to get rid of the baby, first attempting to get an abortion (where she’s harassed by pro-life protesters), then violently beating it out of herself and finally going to a home for unwed mothers, where nuns take them on hayrides so they can—fingers crossed—get miscarriages. (One of many insane moments in this film Waters claims were based on true events.)

Of course, Waters would go on to become a respectable filmmaker, landing more mainstream audiences (families, even!) with Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom (another film about a suburban mom—played by Kathleen Turner—on the edge). But while those were polished, big-budgeted, studio-backed films, Polyester was more like a gonzo test run. It’s 90 minutes of him trying to find that right balance of subversive satire and silly slapstick. Does he get it? Not all the time, but it is fun watching him stink up the joint—in a good way—while doing it.

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