Director John Waters in conversation with Mike Kelley, “The Dirty Boys”, Grand Street, No. 57, Summer 1996:
Waters: Do you understand how you have computer sex? I don’t.
Kelley: I know people who do that. You get into these chat groups.
Waters: So, it’s like phone sex, only you type?
Kelley: You can do a lot more pretending; like you can pretend to be the opposite sex, and the other person doesn’t know.
Waters: Phone sex I get. But how do you act butch on a computer? Do you misspell? Do you write in bad English?
Kelley: Yeah, I guess so. “My warge hands, dese hands, they weach out for youse.” I don’t know.
With our nation’s humor now stranded in the doldrums of irony, it is difficult to remember a time when it was not so, when neither cross-dressing nor foot fetishes were part of our popular lexicon. But in 1981, things were very different. It was the year that accidentally-hilarious melodramas like Mommie Dearest and Endless Love raked in millions of dollars and derailed the careers of Faye Dunaway and Brooke Shields, respectively (while both films made inroads into the gay community for reasons wholly unintended). Arthur was the biggest grossing comedy. And John Waters’s film Polyester, well, it didn’t really register, even as it saw Waters shift ever so slightly towards a more mainstream look and feel, a transition that would lead to his breakthrough Hairspray by decade’s end, a film that launched Rikki Lake’s career and, sadly, was Divine’s early exit at just age 42.
Polyester is, of course, best known for its “Odorama” gimmick, where scratch and sniff cards were distributed to filmgoers upon entering the cinema. This was a nod towards the 1950s gimmicks popularized by filmmakers/hucksters like William Castle, whose ridiculous onscreen “Fright Break” timer in the thriller Homicidal Waters remembers fondly:
“Castle simply went nuts. He came up with ‘Coward’s Corner,’ a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: ‘Cowards Keep Walking.’ You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?…I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, ‘I am a bona fide coward.'”
While “Odorama” wasn’t quite as inspired or elaborate, the viewer saw a number on the screen, scratched the appropriate circle, and received anything from airplane glue to roses to dirty feet to new car smell. Among many vaguely familiar with his work, John Waters is best known for his long association with childhood friend, fellow homosexual and drag queen extraordinaire Divine (a.k.a. Glenn Milstead.) Both grew up in Baltimore and maintained a love/hate relationship with the city, the hate manifesting itself comically in Waters’s great gift for parody and satire. Polyester is first and foremost a brilliant manic send-up of the “women’s picture” genre of the 1950s-60s best exemplified in the works of directors like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession), films that both Waters and Divine grew up watching, and with which the LGBT community has always held in fascination, reworking the subtext to fit their own world views. Other gay directors, like Ranier Fassbinder, would create contemporary versions of these classics in other languages, like his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, while directors like Waters projected these melodramatic plots through their own warped filters of suburban Baltimore, where his biggest goal as a rebellious child of Catholicism was to own a porno theater. In a sense, he achieves said goal, as he makes good use of both smut peddlers and Catholic sisters here.
Like all good modernist melodrama from the Sirk period, the lead is a woman, only it’s Divine in drag, who is called Francine Fishpaw, an unhappy alcoholic who fantasizes about escape. In one of the most masterful casting decisions of all time, Waters hired former teen heartthrob (and gay icon) Tab Hunter to play the lustful middle-aged object of Francine’s affection. Tab Hunter, while not officially out at the time, was long rumored to have been homosexual, although the studio’s publicity departments had once worked overtime to connect him romantically to fellow teen stars like Natalie Wood. By 1981, as far as traditional Hollywood was concerned, his career was pretty much dead in the water, and for him to embrace Waters’s vision while mocking his own beefcake status was an inspired and wise career move on his part. But through the course of its 90 minutes, Waters takes aim at everything in this film, from marriage, to abortion, to sexual fetishes, to nuns on hayrides. His cast of non-professionals (and professionals who are hilariously overacting) only lend to its awkward aesthetic of an after-school teen television special gone horribly, well, drunk.