Sunday, June 18, 2023

2023 Blind Spot Series: Polyester


Written and directed by John Waters, Polyester is the story of an unhappy housewife who meets a man who offers her a different life away from her philandering husband, selfish children, and a horrible mother. The film is the first studio feature for Waters that is partially inspired by the melodramas of Douglas Sirk as it explores a woman trying to find happiness while is also known for having a unique sense of smell. Starring Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, David Samson, Mary Garlington, Ken King, Mink Stole, Joni Ruth White, Hans Kramm, Rick Breitenfeld, and Stiv Bators as Bo-Bo Belsinger. Polyester is a riveting and evocative film from John Waters.

The film follows the troubled life of a housewife living in the suburbs of Baltimore who is treated poorly by her philandering husband who runs a porno theater, two teenage children who both take part in destructive activities, and a mother who constantly steals money from her as she yearns for a different life upon meeting a hunk who seems to be everything she wants. It is a film with a simple premise as it follows Francine Fishpaw (Divine) who has a keen sense of smell that allows her to discover something as well as react to whatever she is dealing with as her life is tumultuous due to the fact that her family are rotten while the only friend she has in Cuddles (Edith Massey) who often helps as she had recently acquired an inheritance from her former employer. John Waters’ screenplay is largely straightforward in its narrative as well as being this study of a housewife who has endured a lot of abuse from her family as well as having to tend to them no matter how selfish they are. Yet, she does get glimmers of hope upon seeing this man in Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) as she wouldn’t meet him properly until its third act.

Waters’ direction is definitely stylish as it owes a lot of the melodramatic films of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s as it is shot on location near areas in Baltimore, Maryland. While its look and tone has a lot of elements that Sirk is known for, Waters does put in his own style as far as its approach to bad taste as it relates to the fact that Francine’s family are terrible with her husband Elmer (David Samson) runs a porno theater as he enjoys the publicity he gets while is openly having an affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole). Her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is promiscuous young woman that is in destructive relationship with a young degenerate in Bo-Bo Belsinger while her son Dexter (Ken King) is a teenage glue-sniffer who has gained notoriety in stomping feet in various areas in Baltimore as Waters infuses a lot of dark humor to play into Francine’s own plight as he also creates some unique compositions in the medium shots and close-ups that add to the drama and offbeat humor.

Since the film features a gimmick known as Odorama that allows audience to smell the things Francine smells through a scratch-and-sniff card as it opens with a scientist in Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw (Rick Breitenfeld) who talks about the gimmick as it is presented in a 1:33:1 aspect ratio as it is a comical sequence which then puts the film into its 1:85:1 aspect ratio. Waters would also use wide shots to play into the locations but also in a sequence in the third act when Francine meets Todd properly for the first time as they would spend the day together. It all plays into this strange approach to melodrama with Waters also infusing a lot of these quirky elements as well as doing things that subvert the melodrama in favor of the need to be provocative in a fun way. Overall, Waters crafts a witty yet heartfelt film about a woman trying to find happiness in an unhappy family life.

Cinematographer David Insley does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its colorful approach to its daytime interior/exterior scenes as well as using soft lighting for some scenes involving fantasy while maintaining some style for some of the scenes set at night. Editor Charles Roggero does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some style in some of the fantasy bits involving slow-motion bits as well as a few jump-cuts to play into its offbeat humor. Art director Vincent Perano and set decorator Beth Sheldon do amazing work with the look of the home that Francine and her family live in with its colorful furniture as well as her bedroom as it owes a lot to the visual style of Douglas Sirk. Costume/makeup designer Van Smith does fantastic work with the costumes from some of the lavish clothes that Cuddles wear as well as the punk-rock trash that Lu-Lu and Dexter wear as well as the look of Francine that adds to the film’s melodramatic tone.

Sound editor Skip Lievsay does superb work with the sound as it plays into not just some of the natural elements but also in some enhanced sound effects to help play into the film’s offbeat humor. The film’s music by Chris Stein and Michael Kamen with lyrics by Deborah Harry is wonderful for its mixture of punk and new wave with orchestral elements as it sort of serves as a parody of melodramatic film scores while the original songs including its theme sung by Tab Hunter as well as a punk-inspired song sung by Kamen and a love song sung by Bill Murray.

The casting by Pat Moran is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles and appearances Mary Vivian Pearce and Sharon Niesp as a couple of nuns who would take Lu-Lu away to a convent, Jean Hill as a gospel bus hijacker who decided to get revenge on Lu-Lu and Bo-Bo, Cookie Mueller and Susan Lowe as a couple of foot-stomping victims of Dexter, Michael Watson as Lu-Lu’s clean-cut date who was coerced to do something for Bo-Bo, and Rick Breitenfeld as Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw who appears in the film’s first scene as the man who presents the Odorama card and what to do in a comical manner. Hans Kramm is terrific as Cuddles’ chauffeur Heintz as a German man who would help Cuddles and Francine as well as being a companion to Cuddles. Stiv Bators is superb as Bo-Bo Belsinger as Lu-Lu’s degenerate boyfriend who likes to cause mayhem and such while being a total asshole to everyone he sees despite his love for Lu-Lu.

Joni Ruth White is fantastic as Francine’s parasitic mother La Rue who constantly steals from Francine and wants to live an upper class lifestyle as well as to feed her own cocaine addiction. Mink Stole is excellent as Elmer’s secretary Sandra who likes to engage in perverse activities with Elmer while having a hairstyle similar to Bo Derek from 10. Ken King and Mary Garlington are brilliant in their respective roles as Francine’s teenage children in Dexter and Lu-Lu with the former being a glue-sniffing punk who likes to stomp on women’s feet in an act of pleasure while the latter is a nymphomaniac of sorts who hates her mother and is in love with Bo-Bo as they both would endure their own crises in their lives. Edith Massey is amazing as Francine’s best friend Cuddles as a simple-minded yet kind woman who helps Francine in every way while sharing bits of her inheritance for a good life with a newfound companion in her chauffeur.

David Samson is incredible as Francine’s husband Elmer as this porno theater owner who is the embodiment of sleaze as he treats Francine like shit and does everything he could to humiliate her in every way and flaunt his affairs in front of her. Tab Hunter is great as Todd Tomorrow as this man who is the embodiment of everything Francine wants yet Hunter brings elements of ambiguity that makes him more interesting than some good looking hunk. Finally, there’s Divine in a phenomenal performance as Francine Fishpaw as an unhappy housewife with a unique sense of smell as she is eager for a happier life despite going into alcoholism as well as being humiliated as it has Divine showing his range in melodrama while also playing a character that is just trying to be a good woman and a good mother to her kids despite the shit she had to deal with.

Polyester is a sensational film from John Waters that features a tremendous leading performance from Divine. Along with its supporting cast, colorful visuals, its mixture of satire and homage to melodramas, and a fun music soundtrack. It is a film that isn’t just this fun comedy-drama that sort of makes fun of melodramas but also a film that explores a woman trying to find happiness in a world where she is treated terribly by her awful husband, delinquent teenage kids, and a parasitic mother. In the end, Polyester is a phenomenal film from John Waters.

John Waters: (Mondo Trash) – Multiple Maniacs - Pink Flamingos - Female Trouble - (Desperate Living) – (Hairspray (1988 film)) – (Cry-Baby) – (Serial Mom) – (Pecker) – (Cecil B. Demented) – (A Dirty Shame) – (Liarmouth)

© thevoid99 2023


Brittani Burnham said...

I really need to dive into some of John Waters' earlier work. I've had Pink Flamingos on my "maybe" list for Blind Spots for a while.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-This film along with Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble are currently available on Criterion while I think this film is a bridge of sorts from the films he was making then to the film he would make in the late 80s and so on as it was the first film he made with a respectable budget as it is also surprisingly accessible.

Diary of a Movie Maniac said...

Even though Waters kinda lost his way in the 1990s, his '70s and '80s output is gangbusters. Polyester is my favorite Waters movie, an affectionate, hilarious spoof of Douglas Sirk's melodramas (I'm a huge Sirk fanboy).

thevoid99 said...

@Diary of a Movie Maniac-I don't think Waters lost his way in the 90s but rather take advantage of the fact that he was making the kind of films Hollywood wasn't making as he was given decent budgets as they all a sense of chaos and such as that was the Waters I grew up on. Still, the stuff I've seen from him in the 70s and 80s are phenomenal.