“Polyester” is the next John Waters movie that will be released on DVD and Blu-ray and the Baltimore-based filmmaker is hoping an updated version of his Odorama card will go along with it.
“I want to add the 11th Odorama odor: Wig odor,” Waters told an audience in New York City at a Q&A last month. “glue and sweat.”
Appearing at the IFC Center for sold-out screenings of “Hairspray” and “Female Trouble,” Waters confirmed that “Polyester” will be restored and distributed in 2019 as part of The Criterion Collection, following re-releases of “Multiple Maniacs” and “Female Trouble.”
“They are going to do ‘Polyester’ next year, so I am excited about that,” Waters said. “They are a Class A company. I think they do an absolutely beautiful job.”
“Polyester,” starring Divine and Tab Hunter (sadly, both now dead), tells the story of suburban house frau Francine Fishpaw (Divine), stuck in a dreary marriage, and how her life changes after she meets dashing Todd Tomorrow (Hunter). Filmed in Greater Lutherville for $300,000 and released in 1981, it was part of Waters’ suburbia-based “Trash Trilogy,” along with “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby.”
“Polyester” became known for its Odorama card, which contained 10 scents that movie goers could scratch and sniff as they watched. They ranged from air freshener and roses to smelly sneakers and flatulence. Inspired by the Smell-O-Vision device from the 1960 movie “Scent of Mystery,” the Odorama card was touted with the lines: “It’ll blow your nose!” and “Smelling is Believing.”
Other original smells were: model airplane glue, pizza, gasoline, skunk, natural gas and new car smell. Glue was taken off the card when a LaserDisc version was released.
“Polyester” received positive reviews from critics such as The New York Times’ Janet Maslin.
“Ordinarily, Mr. Waters is not everyone’s cup of tea, but ‘Polyester’ … is not Mr. Waters’ ordinary movie,” Maslin wrote. “This time, the comic vision is so controlled and steady that Mr. Waters need not rely so heavily on the grotesque touches that make his other films such perennial favorites on the weekend Midnight Movie circuit. Here’s one that can just as well be shown in the daytime.”
Known as the “Pope of Trash” and “Sultan of Sleaze,” the openly gay filmmaker came to New York to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Hairspray” and the 2018 re-release of “Female Trouble.” He had appeared the week before at a “Hairspray” screening and cast reunion in Los Angeles.
At the New York event, moderated by the entertainment writer Michael Musto, Waters was joined by Leslie Ann Powers, the actress who played Penny Pingleton; Joann Havrilla, who played Prudence Pingleton; and Holter Graham, who played I. Q. Jones. Waters said he hadn’t seen Powers in decades and thought she was hiding in the “‘Hairspray’ witness protection program.”
The filmmaker said “Hairspray,” which follows teenager Tracy Turnblad’s efforts to integrate a TV dance show in the 1960s, is “the gift that keeps on giving,” because there have been so many versions of it.
“I say it’s radical because it snuck up on Middle America,” Waters said. “Even racists like it. I’ve been paid to write the sequel two times. There’s been talk of ‘Hairspray on Ice,’ ‘Hairspray in Space.’ What’s left?”
The running joke in the movie is that the 300-pound drag actor Divine, who died in 1988 and played Tracy’s mother Edna, is actually a man but no one knows it except the audience.
In real life, Divine “had no desire to be a woman,” Waters said. “He wanted to be Godzilla. …We created Divine to scare hippies.”
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine off-screen was nothing like Divine onscreen, Waters noted. “He was a kind, gentle man who was a pothead and liked to eat.”
Though he and Divine were good friends, Waters said, Divine eventually wanted to do more than John Waters movies, especially after the scene in “Pink Flamingos” where he ate dog poop.
“He got weary of being with me … because people couldn’t get over the whole eating-shit thing,” Waters said. “He got so sick of talking about that. … He wanted to get away from me and do things without me.”
During a separate Q&A session following the “Female Trouble” screening, Waters reported that none of the child actors in his movies was traumatized by the experience.
“All the kids in my movies turned out fine,” he said. “The little girl that I locked in a refrigerator (in Desperate Living)? She’s fine. … There was nothing weird or anything. They memorized their lines. They’re fine.”
“Female Trouble” focuses on Dawn Davenport (Divine), who turns to a life of crime after she didn’t get cha cha heels for Christmas, kills her daughter Taffy and ends up frying in the electric chair.
Waters said he originally wanted Divine to play both the mother and daughter but concluded it wouldn’t work because of Divine’s age. Instead, he had Divine play both the mother and the father, which means Divine rapes himself.
The famous line delivered by the late Edith Massey: “the world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life,” had a double purpose aside from its comedic punch, Waters said.
“That was market testing. I wanted to see how many gay people were in the audience.”
Ever the name dropper, Waters said he loves the director Ingmar Bergman because “he had the first puke scene.” He said he met Elizabeth Taylor toward the end of her life and “she looked like Divine.” He said he considered casting Roseanne Barr as the lead in “Serial Mom,” back when she was “a complete liberal,” but eventually chose Kathleen Turner.
Waters said he used to visit courtrooms during criminal trials but can’t anymore “because people recognize me.” He disclosed that Dawn Davenport’s character was inspired in part by Alice Crimmins, a New York woman and Casey Anthony forerunner who was convicted of killing her two children in 1965.
Musto said he had a treat for Waters. “Big surprise,” he said. “Alice is here with us tonight!”
The conversation eventually came down, as it often does, to cha cha heels and Christmas.
Musto asked Waters if the dialogue about them — “Those aren’t the right kind. I told you cha cha heels, black ones!” and “Good girls don’t wear cha cha heels” — aren’t the most quoted lines from a John Waters movie.
Waters said the scene in which the Christmas tree falls over on Dawn’s mother was inspired by a time when a Christmas tree fell on his grandmother.
“I remember the handyman screaming, the maid crying and me being, ‘Is my present hurt?’ She wasn’t injured, but I was obsessed by it.”
He said a lot of his fans seem to have stories about falling Christmas trees.
“It’s usually dogs or liquor.”
Waters said his family always had real trees when he was growing up, never artificial, and his mother frowned on those who decorated with multi-colored lights.
“She was all white lights,” he said. “She would go around the neighborhood and look in windows” and make disparaging remarks about families with multi-colored lights.
Waters marvels that his movies are so embraced today since mainstream studios shunned them initially.
The Criterion Collection, which will distribute “Polyester,” is affiliated with Warner Brothers, one of the largest entertainment companies in America.
“Warner Brothers distributes all of mine now,” Waters said. “Who would have imagined?”
More John Waters fun!
He’s no longer making new movies but there are still ways to enjoy the John Waters sensibility.
“John Waters: Indecent Exposure,” billed as the “first major retrospective of Baltimore native John Waters’ visual art,’ opens Oct. 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore) and runs through Jan. 6. The show will “examine the unapologetic cultural force’s influential career through more than 160 pieces of his work dating back to the early 1990s.” Details at artbma.org.
Waters makes his annual trek to the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria) on Thursday, Dec. 20 for “A John Waters Christmas,” his comedy stand-up show. Tickets are $55. Details at birchmere.com.