Movies We Like
Everyone told me that by the time I got into the early works of John Waters, I'd be blown away. Starting late in his career held its charm, especially with Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, but knowing that he was heavily inspired by the Kuchar brothers and cast eccentrics as wonderful as Divine did give their argument some weight. Female Trouble has not only become one of my favorite cult classics, but one that has helped me put the glorification of its many themes into perspective. On that level, the movie is way ahead of its time by approaching child abuse, violence, and habitual self-destruction as something inevitable and relevant to movie-goers. When you think about it, those issues are touched upon in the majority of American films, though, in retrospect, filmmakers don't often twist these observations into dark comedy.
Like all of his films, it's set in Baltimore, but stars his cream of the crop, Divine, and the wonderful Edith Massey. It's split into several chapters, the first being an introduction to Dawn Davenport's (Divine) youth in 1960. She and her best friends Chicklette and Concetta rant about how much their high school and parents suck and what they hope to get for Christmas. Dawn is expecting black cha-cha heels and vows to raise hell if her parents don't comply with her wishes. Christmas Day comes and she gets a pair of standard black shoes, causing her to throw her mother into the tree and disown her parents. She runs away and gets knocked up by a guy who picks her up hitchhiking (also played by Divine). With a new baby on her hands and him M.I.A., she begins her career as a stripper, prostitute, and petty thief.
The second chapter is titled Career Girl, spanning from '61-'67, swiftly followed by Early Criminal in '68. The raunchiness and downright repulsive activities of Dawn take the movie's comedy to a whole new level. Dressed in the iconic black catsuits that Waters liked to reinvent with each movie, they rob houses and prostitute in order to cram their apartments with useless clutter and go to beauty parlors. Dawn's mothering tactics leave much to be desired as her now talking offspring shows signs of neglect. Her daughter Taffy is not allowed to have friends over or go to school. Dawn claims that there is no use in learning about science, presidents or math, nor having over friends who ask "flippant questions." When the little tyke refuses to stop annoying her with questions and nursery rhymes, she chains her to a bed in the attic. Chicklette and Concetta try to get Dawn to come out more and suggest that getting ones hair done is a wonderful antidepressant. They recommend a beauty salon of strange affiliation to the Dashers, two avant-garde artists (David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce) who are very choosey about their clientele. Dawn passes their interview and meets Gator, one of the hairdressers. They fall in love and get married against the will of his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey), who wishes he was gay and thinks that the life of a heterosexual is a “sick and boring life.”
From there we move into the Married Life chapter, beginning in '69. The cliched view of a straight marriage is exaggerated to the point of being hilarious. Gator is an alcoholic and womanizer, and the pre-teen Taffy (played by Mink Stole) has developed into a bitter prude who likes to play morbid games and blackmail her mother. She's also met with hostility from Aunt Ida, who turns out to be a sort of mother-in-law from hell. The Dashers go on this strange ego-trip and ask Dawn to model for their new photography project. They've come to view crime and beauty as two sides of the same whole. Dawn agrees to let them photograph her committing several crimes and abusing her daughter, and in exchange, they get rid of Gator. But with him driven away, his aunt goes berserk and throws acid in Dawn's face to get even. With a ghoulish new face and the Dashers filling her head with ideas of show business and fame, Dawn leaps into a world of crime that can only lead to the mercy seat.
The crime and violence in this movie created a very interesting dynamic for me. The person doing the most crime is our heroine-gone-wrong, Dawn, and she's the only one who seems to pay for her wrongdoings. Everyone else, including the fickle and self-righteous Dashers, breeze through life unscathed after what they did to aid Dawn in her illegal activities. You even start to feel sorry for her because she honestly felt that crime was beautiful and necessary to perform in order to be famous. Looking at today's media, it's not hard to see how some might find a life of crime and violence essential when the rest of the world doesn't seem to have a problem glorifying it. For a movie that came before Jerry Springer, The Maury Show, and every movie or persona that makes living in the slums out to be a fun thing, Female Trouble really did expose a huge issue before it became okay to talk about it. Of course, Waters turns it into a satirical mess, which some people may have a problem with. I'd like to agree, but this movie is so disgusting, shocking, crude, and wonderful; being a sane person, there is nothing about it that makes the lifestyle of a petty thief turned murderer appear fun. In short, Female Trouble is an awesome, relevant movie from the '70s that features a very talented cast and a ballsy director. Highly Recommended!