Although director John Waters rose to notoriety thanks to his scandalously coprophagic midnight movie Pink Flamingos (1972), and scored his biggest mass-market hit with the Jiffy Popped hair-hopper comedy Hairspray (1988), there’s a good argument to be made that Female Trouble (1974) is his true magnum opus. Waters himself has expressed the opinion that this hilariously sordid pseudomelodrama is the finest of his early works, and the film’s star, drag icon Divine, likewise considered it his favorite. Mention Female Trouble to any of Waters’ more hard-core devotees and choice snatches of demented dialogue from the film will soon trip off their lips with the actors’ original intonations intact, as easily as a nun recites her one millionth Ave Maria (listen long enough and you may eventually hear the entire screenplay). Shot on a tiny $25,000 budget, Female Trouble was produced with many returning members of the cast and crew from Waters’ previous feature-length exploits: Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), and Pink Flamingos. And as with his other films, Waters played an outsize creative role, in this case serving as producer, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and coeditor—and even penning the lyrics to the movie’s funked-out opening theme song.
Yet despite its Wellesian hands-on auteurism, Female Trouble succeeds spectacularly not only because it is a John Waters movie but also because it is undeniably a Divine movie, in the same way one might speak of a Bette Davis movie, a Marilyn Monroe movie, or a Jayne Mansfield movie. Written by Waters as a vehicle for the biggest player in his Dreamland Productions microstudio, Female Trouble is structured to show off the zaftig actor’s formidable range of comedic and even dramatic talent, as it charts protagonist Dawn Davenport’s arc from bratty suburban adolescent to electrocuted criminal. “Since the character turns from teenage delinquent to mugger, prostitute, unwed mother, child abuser, fashion model, nightclub entertainer, murderess, and jailbird, I felt at last Divine had a role she could sink her teeth into,” Waters wrote in his 1981 collection of essays and remembrances Shock Value. As Dawn, Divine is on-screen for the majority of the film, and even plays a second role, in macho drag, as Earl Peterson, a snarling dirtbag who rapes and impregnates the teenage Dawn after she runs away from home. (In later years, Divine had the perfect comeback when drunk hecklers at his live disco performances told him, “Go fuck yourself”: “I already did that!”)
As Dawn moves through her many life chapters, Waters and Divine tell her tale by cycling through a dizzying compendium of tawdry female screen representations, drawing inspiration from maligned genres like drive-in cheapies, Hollywood tearjerkers, and boob-tube soap operas. In the film’s opening scenes, Divine, Cookie Mueller, and Susan Walsh, playing a trio of unwaveringly bad-tempered Kennedy-era high schoolers, parrot the tough-talking demi-dames of a fifties juvenile-delinquent picture; later, after Dawn’s illegitimate child, Taffy, goes out of control, Divine channels the pincushioned miseries of a woman’s film like Mildred Pierce or Imitation of Life. “I’ve done everything a mother can do,” the grown-up Dawn breathlessly confides to her friends Chicklette (Walsh) and Concetta (Mueller), in the exasperated tones of a long-suffering matron, after shackling her screaming child to a bed in the attic with manacles. “I’ve locked her in her room. I’ve beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her!” The film’s conclusion finds an incarcerated Dawn awaiting her execution, and thereby morphs into a gritty women-in-prison flick, complete with sadistic lady guards and a cellblock lesbian romance.
“Although it may have been ahead of its time in promoting homosexuality on-screen, Female Trouble could never be accused of political correctness.”
Like Waters’ other films, Female Trouble was shot in and around the director’s native Baltimore, but this movie is largely an indoor affair. Much of the action transpires in Dawn’s home, designed by Waters’ longtime art director Vincent Peranio to provide the ultimate in mise-en-kitsch. Peranio constructed Dawn’s residence inside an abandoned, condemned apartment, filling it with garish wallpaper, outdated furniture, and populuxe tchotchkes; we first encounter Dawn here in her living room, sitting on a powder-blue couch, her hair in rollers, eating an enormous doughnut and poring over a lurid gossip magazine. Peranio’s ersatz bad taste competes with locations steeped in the real thing. Dawn’s childhood home, where she throws a fit on Christmas when she doesn’t receive the cha-cha heels she asked for, belonged to some authentic Marylanders, who had already decorated it in tacky midcentury-modern-colonial. The Lipstick Beauty Salon, headquarters of “fascist beauticians” Donna and Donald Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary), is a frilly purple travesty that must have ministered to countless Baltimorean hairdos in its day. Other locations situate the performers inside shabbier realities: Dawn’s scenes as a disaffected student take place in an out-of-commission high school, complete with banging metal lockers and echoing classrooms. For Multiple Maniacs, Waters had infamously filmed a sex scene with Divine in a church; for Female Trouble, Waters again convinced a local pastor to let him shoot in a house of worship off-hours, this time for Dawn’s wedding, the reverend looking the other way when Divine appeared in a crotch-revealing gown and Edith Massey in her trademark leather-fetish getup. Most remarkably, Dawn’s imprisonment and death were filmed on an unused women’s floor of the actual Baltimore City Jail—whose warden, it turns out, was a fan of Divine’s, and reportedly laughed while watching the actor pretend to fry in the electric chair.
This clever aestheticization of budgetary necessity has its roots in the sixties underground movies of Andy Warhol and brothers George and Mike Kuchar, all of whose work inspired Waters to take up filmmaking. Warhol, the Kuchars, and the rest of their generation, however, were more interested in dissolving the boundary between art and life, and their films have a tendency to fold back into historical records of their own creation. Rather than giving Female Trouble a documentary feel, Waters’ use of real-life backgrounds only heightens the extreme artifice of the film’s dramaturgy, dialogue, and plot. Here and there, the director sneaks in mini-homages to favorite movies from his personal canon. As a young mother, Dawn makes some quick cash go-go dancing; Divine’s bikini-top costume and Waters’ gawking camera work recall the opening nightclub sequence of Russ Meyer’s equally ultraviolent Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Later, Chicklette and Concetta sit to either side of Dawn on her bed, the arrangement of their bouffanted heads quoting a composition in the film Valley of the Dolls (1967). Divine’s teased raven-black hair and smoky eyes in these scenes are a clear tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, although Waters has said that this look was also lifted from that of the mother in Diane Arbus’s 1966 photograph A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C.
Like the Arbus photograph, Female Trouble rejects the American norm of treating the typical straight family as sacrosanct. These antifamily values align Female Trouble with the sentiments of the hippie, the dropout, and the homosexual (Waters and many of the Dreamlanders, of course, were all three); its humor positions its audience within this outsider perspective. The film’s condemnation of the family is most heartily articulated through Dawn’s battering of Taffy, at first played by a preteen Hilary Taylor in an outfit mimicking actor Patty McCormack’s in The Bad Seed (1956), and later by an incongruously adult Mink Stole. (“Look in the mirror, Taffy,” her mother tells her. “For fourteen, you don’t look so good.”) And while Female Trouble is queer in all the original meanings of the word—perverted, cockeyed, and just plain weird—it’s also undeniably and unapologetically queer in the contemporary sense: in Divine’s divine drag, in Donna Dasher’s brutal bitchiness, in Donald Dasher’s aristocratic airs, in the mincing antics of their fawning hairdressers. In a reversal of the coming-out scenario, Dawn’s neighbor and rival Aunt Ida (Massey) tries to pressure her straight nephew, Gater (Michael Potter), to date a nice male hairdresser. “I’d be so proud if you was a fag,” she implores him. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of heterosexual is a sick and boring life!” Even in our enlightened twenty-first century, these lines remain the most overt expression of gay militancy that American cinema has ever produced; in theaters, Aunt Ida’s lament still elicits howls of approval from the audience.
Although it may have been ahead of its time in promoting homosexuality on-screen, Female Trouble could never be accused of political correctness. We find ourselves laughing at child abuse, mass murder, abortion, physical deformity, and capital punishment, all drawn out and exaggerated to comic effect. Divine’s self-rape scene begins as a brutal assault that seamlessly melts into a fit of blubbery passion, as Dawn demands oral pleasure from slobbering Earl. But while it takes jabs at mainstream morality, the script also makes sure to offend even the most sexually liberated of Waters’ thrill-seeking audiences. When the Dashers first entice Dawn to become the subject of one of their “beauty experiments,” the couple become offended at Dawn’s suspicion that their goal is pornography. “Sex is not one of our interests,” Donald angrily insists. “We find the subject most repellent,” Donna huffs. “We would certainly never allow ourselves to be caught in one of those ludicrous ‘positions.’”
“Pink Flamingos was a hard act to follow,” Waters would later confess in Shock Value. “All my humor is based on nervous reactions to anxiety-provoking situations, so I wanted the ideals rather than the action of Female Trouble to be horrifying.” This is not to say that horrifying actions aren’t performed throughout the film. Ida throws acid in Dawn’s face, melting it into a hideous mess. In retaliation, the Dashers capture Ida and imprison her in a giant birdcage, and Dawn later chops off Ida’s hand with an ax, replacing it with a piratical hook. The climax of such visual perversity occurs in Dawn’s cabaret act, which begins with her claiming to have blown serial killer Richard Speck (among other atrocities), continues with her masturbating in a playpen using a raw fish, and ends with her firing a gun into the crowd after asking, “Who wants to die for art?” Waters has traced his penchant for cheap gore and monster-movie violence to his admiration for horror pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis, maker of early splatter films like Blood Feast (1963) and Color Me Blood Red (1965); as in Lewis’s work, this film’s Grand Guignol moments transcend the low-rent nature of their production.
Yet Female Trouble does indeed put forth certain “ideals” through its characters, particularly the Dashers. “You see, our experiment involves beauty and crime. We feel them to be one,” Donna tells Dawn, after proposing to take photographs of her breaking various laws. “We have a theory that crime enhances one’s beauty,” Donald continues. “The worse the crime gets, the more ravishing one becomes.” These lines are played for laughs, of course, but they’re also an expression of Waters’ own anti-aesthetic, developed via his love of figures like Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, and Kenneth Anger, and inflamed by the director’s fascination with the Manson family. Female Trouble is dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, one of Manson’s gang of murderers, and includes an image of a toy helicopter Watson made for Waters in prison. After many years of personal contact with former Manson members, however, Waters has more recently mentioned some regret for this dedication. “I am guilty, too,” he writes in his 2010 book Role Models. “Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims’ families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids.”
Yet in Female Trouble, the glorification of crime and evil is unmistakably allegorical, a way for all of us to indulge in extreme antisocial sentiments without anybody really getting hurt. “You’re looking at crime personified,” Divine cries as Dawn, just before she shoots into her own audience, wearing a Mohawk-like hairdo that predicts punk. In the upheavals of its boundary-pushing comedy, Female Trouble seems to slyly ask for a revaluation of all values, collapsing any distinction between high and low, good taste and bad, beauty and ugliness. These are concerns that run throughout Waters’ now-vast oeuvre of film, writing, visual art, and other creations, but it is in Female Trouble that his ideas are most fully delineated, and most thoroughly embodied by his greatest muse. Burroughs famously dubbed Waters the Pope of Trash. Female Trouble, we might say, is his Summa Trashologica.