Film Review #113: Hairspray
Director: John Waters
Cast: Rikki Lake, Divine, Ruth Brown
Rikkie Lake was an Ithaca College freshman when she answered an ad for “fat girls who can dance,” landing the Tracy Turnblad part in the original 1988 film Hairspray. She didn’t know who John Waters was – the Baltimore director had her wait until she’d finished acting in his “cleanest” movie to watch Pink Flamingos and others. She hadn’t known the actor Divine – who taught her how to walk in high heels – was a man either.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots to like about Adam Shankman’s just released new Hairspray – Nikki Blonsky’s infectious Tracy, Queen Latifah’s arch Maybelle, the wonderful dance duet between Tracy’s mom and dad, Edna and Wilbur (John Travolta and Christopher Walken), Maybelle’s son, Seaweed J. Stubbs (the charismatic and talented Elijah Kelley), who teaches Tracy her best moves and romances her best friend Penny, Michelle Pfieffer’s deliciously wicked Velma. But it’s a good sign that it was hard to find the original last weekend in local rental shops because they were all signed out. Waters’ own film has more bite and sass, and single-handedly illustrates how some projects are straightened up and bleached out to market them to mainstream audiences.
The new film isn’t a re-make of the first so much as a screen version of the Broadway musical, itself a sanitized adaptation of the original. That stage musical – with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that’s also used in the new movie – will mark its fifth anniversary running at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan in a couple weeks. The 1988 film has had several DVD editions as part of John Waters sets, and as a stand-alone in 2002 after the play opened. The new film was shot in Ontario to accommodate the kind of production numbers that come with a $75 million budget – Baltimore’s existing sound stages weren’t big enough. Waters’ film was shot on location in Baltimore and Allentown with a budget that made its grand finale scene one crane shot “really expensive.”
Here’s the story: it’s 1962 in Baltimore and Rikkie Lake’s 15-year-old Tracy Turnblad and her friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) are obsessed with the Corny Collins Show, a daily locally-produced live TV dance party. After dancing with Seaweed (Clayton Prince) and his sister L’il Inez during Special Ed classes (the practice of labeling and consigning black students, which Tracy sees and objects to, has been updated to a more generic “detention” in the new version), Tracy attracts the attention of Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard), star dancer and boyfriend of the spoiled Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Saddened that her new friends can’t join her on the Collins show, Tracy aims to integrate the show and wrest the Miss Auto Show crown from Amber despite Amber’s conniving mother Velma (Debbie Harry in a “one-wing” ‘do that Waters swears people “actually walked around in” back then) and father Franklin (Sonny Bono). Legendary R & B singer Ruth Brown (fresh from her Tony-winning Broadway turn in Black and Blue) plays Motormouth Maybelle. As the record shop owner and “Negro Day” deejay, she and L’il Inez take the governor hostage to force Tracy’s release from reform school. There’s a scrappy, mean race riot at Tilted Acres amusement park in which white counter-protestors menacingly shake rope nooses at the black kids and wallop the white kids with over-sized pocketbooks. A cattle-prod wielding psychiatrist (played by Waters) locks Penny up for dating Seaweed. The new film, although it actually looks like the original in many small details, considerably streamlines the plot digressions and characters. But all versions include a male actor portraying Tracy’s mother Edna as the stay-at-home laundress and all portray the happy ending of local TV’s integration via dancing teens.
Hairspray was Waters’ homage to Baltimore’s black music scene on the cusp of huge 1960s upheaval; Maybelle’s record shop walls are covered with posters advertising Little Anthony and the Imperials, Mary Wells, Etta James and others. Baltimore was a test market where record companies marketed songs by introducing new dances that went with them. The Buddy Deane Show, upon which the Corning Collins Show is based, was really picketed. Instead of expanding, it went off the air – because the parents of the show’s regular white dancers preferred that course to integration.
In the original 1988 film, Waters also openly recalled that the radical 60s abruptly flowered. In that context segregated record hops actually signify the end of an era. A reefer-smoking, Odetta-channeling, Allen Ginsburg-quoting beatnik (Pia Zadora) tells Tracy she’ll “never overcome with hair like that,” inspiring the laundress’ daughter to discard her fashionably mainstream, bleached, bouffant ‘do in favor of ironing her hair – something that her black reform school cohorts help Tracy to do. Catch phrases of those times appear as dialogue, as when Edna echoes Bob Dylan by sagely observing, “The times, they’re a-changin’ – something’s blowin’ in the wind.” Or L’il Inez, at first barred from the Corny Collins Show, strikes a pose and declaims – MLK-like – “I have a dream!”
Waters is fearless about offending in ways the newer versions can’t hope to match, though let’s concede that no one staging a 2002 musical could have Velma’s character hiding a bomb in her hair-do to waste the Miss Auto Show if Amber failed to win the crown. Waters’ “popular” teenagers are meaner and more aggressively sexual than any up to those in the next year’s satirical Heathers. Most telling, his white racists behave so badly they routinely amaze (and crack up) black characters who thought they’d seen everything. The new film has Edna follow the white kids to Maybelle’s record shop, where she’s tempted by Maybelle’s buffet table into an early truce. In Waters’ original film, it’s Penny’s mother, hysterical, paranoid, clutching her purse, begging for mercy and running away shrieking when the police cruiser she spies has a black officer behind the wheel. Imagine Queen Latifah’s solemn, candle-lit anthem (“I Know Where I’ve Been”) from the new film – which actually occurs in darkness well away from the chaos of the original scene – transplanted to Water’s film, and it’s clear how foreign such a scene is to Waters’ approach and how, by masquerading as a dignified portrayal of the civil rights movement, it actually masks how mean-spirited that movement’s opponents were.
In Waters’ film the music is the real deal too – from the ultra-cool, finger-snapping, syncopated Madison line dance, to the hilarious placement of Gene Pitney’s melodramatic “Town Without Pity,” to the steamy “Bunker Hill” whose lyrics encouraged some truly dirty dancing, to the Ikettes’ marvelous “I’m Blue.” There’s even a cameo of Toussaint McCall singing his “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” As likable as Shaiman and Wittman’s Broadway score may be, the original film will still ruin you for “in the style of” sound tracks.
And John Travolta can say what he likes about playing Edna straight. By sheer dint of repetition, he seems to have gotten a fair number of reviewers to line up behind him. But it’s nonsense. There is never a second in the new film that a man in drag isn’t playing Edna, though it’s an oddly pinched, straight version of drag. The real moment of truth occurs as Travolta’s lovely duet with Christopher Walken (“You’re Timeless to Me”) comes to rest – you’d know this were missing if Edna were a “real” woman – without the requisite closing kiss.
Instead of grasping what Waters was exploring with Edna Turnblad, Travolta and others have simply assumed that a gay filmmaker was indulging himself by including a drag queen in his story. Amazingly, there are stretches when Divine does fade into Tracy’s put-upon, working class, adoring but most unglamorous mother. On the bonus track, Waters reports that the pre-makeover Edna, standing among on-lookers at the edge of the on-street sets, was often taken as an on-looker herself by similarly house-dress-clad Baltimore women. Waters recalls Divine exclaiming, “Believe me, no one can call me a drag queen lookin’ like this!”
Long years of type-cast notoriety have obscured Divine’s marvelous performance. Actually seeing the original film excavates that performance, which is in turn magnified on-screen by Divine’s second role in the movie, playing the bombastic Arnold Hodgepodge – a straight role that, curiously, John Travolta did not seek to reprise. Seeing the original resurrects the question of why this particular mother in this cultural moment might be best played by a man, and the neighboring question of whether there’s any American woman who even could play Edna as “well” – though either of the two Roma divas (members of another maligned and theatrically defiant group) in Jasmine Dellal’s recent Gypsy Caravan might pull it off. That change that Edna senses “blowin’ in the wind” compares to another historical moment of upheaval, when the convention of men taking all stage roles disintegrated. Several years ago the film Stage Beauty gave us that moment, with all its attendant stress between enacted and inalienable “femininity” about which is the more “real.”
See for yourself.
An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the 7/26/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.