Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
John Waters was never a man known for his subtlety. So when he appears on screen for a few minutes in the new remake of his 80s flick Hairspray, it’s not surprising that his cameo of choice is as the local flasher who lives next door. That’s about as close to the twisted humor of Waters as this new movie gets, but to be fair, the original Hairspray was far tamer than most of John Waters’s visions. John Waters films generally read like a catalog of eccentricity and “filth” in the style of a modern day Marquis de Sade. The Marquis de Sade’s rarely read 120 Days of Sodom chronicled in explicit detail every so-called perversion or sexual practice that he’d witnessed, imagined, heard of or participated in during an era where these matters were not discussed. He appalls perhaps more because of his willingness to discuss such activities more than for the activities themselves. Similarly, Waters had to look no further than the streets of Baltimore where he grew up to find his inspiration and players for all manner of parts that label his work as “shock” cinema, bringing out aspects of humanity that visual storytelling usually keeps comfortably swept under the rug.
But like de Sade, Waters does not mock these people and actions he brings to the forefront of his movies. His humor is vulgar and shocking but not cruel. He’s not presenting a spectacle like a circus freak show but instead presenting comedies that bring out their players in extreme, comic, yet human stories. Of all the actors he brought to the surface in these tales, one of the greatest was Divine: a three hundred some pound man who played stunning leading ladies who were large and somewhat masculine but never downtrodden or passive: Divine’s women (and men, as he often appears sans drag) seem to stop at nothing and have been responsible for some of the most remembered and talked about moments in Waters’s collection.
The original Hairspray reshaped public perception of both Waters and Divine. There’s no eating of excrement or other shocking moments as in Pink Flamingoes, only Divine as the far from glamorous housewife Edna Turnblad with a daughter who aspires to dance on television even though she has inherited some of her mother’s physical traits, namely, a tendency to be “pleasantly plump.” Edna Turnblad is something Divine rarely was in the Waters movies that preceded Hairspray: touching. As the housewife laundress who worries over her daughter trying to go out and make it on television where women like them are far from welcome, Divine is thoroughly human and almost sweet, though she still finds time to scold Tracy about her overdone hair. Divine could not have reprised the role in the remake even if the casting directors had wanted her: Divine passed away shortly after the original Hairspray was released, and did not live to see it become a popular success worthy of remaking both in play and film.
There’s an authenticity to the original Hairspray that is hard to match. We’re almost another two decades removed from the Waters film, and that film was another twenty some years removed from the 60s period it was representing. The new movie brings Hollywood star power in place of the local Baltimore talent that Waters relied on. In the remake, currently in theaters, the part of Divine is played by John Travolta. Travolta cannot fill Divine’s shoes in the most literal of senses: Travolta requires a fat suit to obtain what Divine had naturally, and the hard edges to Divine’s large leading lady are softened even further by Travolta. But there is a charming chemistry between Travolta and onscreen husband Christopher Walken that reflects the gentler nature of the remake. Their romance is the mature and beautiful counterpoint to the young love developing between Tracy and her costar on an all-white dancing show, The Corny Collins show.
As Tracy and her friends seek integration for The Corny Collins Show, she approaches this touchy subject with a pure innocence that none of the adults can possess. She isn’t acting for a cause or considering the political side of the protest and struggle. Tracy is neither an intellectual or social activist. She’s simply a dancer who doesn’t see any reason for taking *any* physical attributes into consideration for looking at dancing—ironic, given that dancing remains a pastime where physical attributes are valued highly, as any Broadway chorus girl or ballet dancer knows too well.
Race may be at the heart of the integration battle throughout the Hairspray story, but in Hollywood today the integration of larger actors is another contested issue. It’s hard to find actresses even of “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad’s size playing the leading lady in any film, and certainly even more rare to find a love story with a large woman fairing well. When Renee Zellweger was considered to be playing someone overweight for her turn in Bridget Jones Diary, it’s clear that the standards are lacking in some authenticity. It’s a common complaint leveled against Hollywood and, indeed, all media in general that are said to uphold impossible standards of beauty. However, it’s hard to say it’s become redundant as an issue when the truth remains that now skinny folks of any color will have a much easier time getting on a local dance show than someone of Turblad proportions. [John Waters himself was on a local Baltimore dance show in their heyday].
John Travolta is a great actor and dancer, and he does justice to the role of Edna. But can it go unremarked that rather than cast someone physically more in tune with the part they chose to go through the monumental effort of putting Travolta in a convincing fat suit? It’s an ironic choice in a remake of a film about a plump girl seeing all her dreams fulfilled and convincing the media that her talent outweighs her physical looks. Hollywood and particularly the Academy tend to reward actors who go through extreme physical changes to play their parts, a la Charlize Theron in Monster. They are less rewarding to those who actually possess “less” than the ideal.
John Waters made roles for actors and actresses who would find it difficult indeed to work in traditional Hollwood environments. He caught a reality to his characters by embracing a reality among his cast. Like or hate his movies, the audience could not help but encounter something new and unexpected [and, admittedly, perhaps unwelcome]. Hairspray is the first of his works to move to the mainstream, but it appears to not be the last: Cry-Baby, the original Waters/Depp collaboration, has a remake hitting Broadway in the next year. Perhaps again viewers will return to try the original Waters films as they are brought to the spotlight, and a new generation will discover these unusual characters.