Fusing the melodrama of Douglas Sirk and the ballyhoo of William Castle, John Waters’ sixth feature, Polyester (1981), was a departure from the scrofulous 16 mm mode of production he had made his cult name plying to midnight-movie crowds in the seventies. With his ragtag band of regular collaborators, the Dreamlanders, Waters had achieved a singular notoriety via his Trash Trilogy: Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), films that lobbed a Molotov cocktail of punkish subcultural mayhem, postliberationist sexuality, and genre transgression at the American movie scene. Paeans to the enchantments of filth and the beauty of crime, these low-rent, scruffy films celebrated dissidence from norms of film presentation, social performance, and propriety. But after making Desperate Living, Waters would later confess, he was ready for “something different”: “I had done the shock-value thing, and it was becoming boring . . . I had this nightmare of myself at eighty, making movies about people eating colostomy bags.” He got his opportunity after his distributor Robert Shaye’s New Line Cinema moved into film production in the midseventies.
Polyester’s roughly $300,000 budget from New Line was quite a leap from the four- or five-figure ones of Waters’ earlier homegrown productions. The film was shot on 35 mm with the use of a Steadicam, professional lighting, split screens, helicopter shots, and relatively tony Baltimore-area locations. Waters’ greatest coup, though, may have been snagging fifties matinee teen idol Tab Hunter as the romantic lead, Todd Tomorrow, and casting him opposite Waters’ stalwart, anarchic drag goddess Divine (né Harris Glenn Milstead). Waters ingeniously conceived the film around a glorious throwback gimmick delivered via scratch-and-sniff cards, and introduced in the prologue by a Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw (Rick Breitenfeld). The white-coated expert crows, “You may experience some odors that will shock you,” before exclaiming, “This is Odorama!” as the frame expands (or perhaps exhales!) to fit the full screen. Perhaps this was a premise foretold in Waters’ earlier works, most forcefully in the notorious dog-shit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos, which relies on the charge emitted by the sight, implied scent, and—not least—imagined taste of that mongrel turd. Like his underground-film heroes—George and Mike Kuchar, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith—who trawled obsolete popular detritus for kitsch gold, Waters drew on fifties film culture for its direct appeals to the spectator’s body. He combined smell, schlock, shock, guffaws, and tears in service of this amiably boisterous parody, hoping, he admitted, to finally “make a film that really stinks!”
Polyester is also a treatise on the besieged middle-class woman, subject of that most lachrymose of genres, the “women’s film.” Set in the early eighties, the film lampoons the perturbations and hysterical hypocrisies of life in the American suburbs. Waters pinpoints the paradoxes inherent to melodramatic femininity—incarnated in the woman who is given the woeful task of enforcing domestic order (moral and otherwise) and who becomes the locus of its fundamental disorder (her sentiments run rampant). What better embodiment of that impossible fantasy of venerated femininity than the legendary Divine, doing his best bedraggled Liz Taylor impersonation, routed through the cartoonish Grand Guignol of Sins of the Fleshapoids and the hairpin plot twists and chest heaving of As the World Turns, with a touch of the materialist naivete of Rainer Werner Fassbinder thrown in?
“Waters flags private zones where women ponder the tensions between artifice, reality, and self-definition.”
Francine Fishpaw, played with a febrile energy that only Divine could summon, offers a new prototype for heroines in Waters’ world. In her beleaguered banality, she magnetizes the viewer with a heady mix of attraction, sympathy, and repulsion, troubling the distinction between pathos and bathos. In the opening scene, the ostentatiously gliding Steadicam moves through Francine’s pastel-hued home bedecked in French-provincial decor, arriving in a lavender and cream bedroom where she appears, clad in white. Francine shimmies to hoist her white elastic girdle-panties around her girth, depilates her face, carefully plucks her nose hair, and deodorizes her feet and underarms. Recalling the boudoirs, bedside tables, and ornate mirrored vanities of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, and the languorous wandering of a negligee-clad La Liz in the opening of BUtterfield 8, Waters flags private zones where women ponder the tensions between artifice, reality, and self-definition. Yet in Francine’s inner sanctum, such references collide with the queered femininity of Divine bodaciousness, one with all the busted-girdle seams showing. Francine’s is a femme body that requires serious “work.” Ironically seen amid the hazy veils of lacy window valances and the diffusions of soft focus, she is simultaneously ideal and de-idealized, as Tab Hunter croons the title song: “You know about abundant women / Well, this girl only aims to please / . . . Polyester / This is your life / Francine / Smell the fragrant perfumed means / Darling, my dreams / Purely polyester queen (Francine).” Polyester—cheap, shiny, yet durable, both artificial and aspirational, symbol of the synthetic and degraded—suggests the excesses and promises of the American “good life” under capitalism, its plastic both miracle and scourge. And what could be more excessive and synthetic than the conventional roles and positions available to those “polyester queens,” the tormented women of fifties women’s films?
Francine Fishpaw’s burlesqued No Exit flips the script on the resplendent deviance of Divine’s persona in Waters’ films up to this point. The director replaced the drag queen’s usual shock-in-trade—whether being raped by a giant lobster, having sex with her son, eating dog excrement, or having a deranged “glamour fit” before shooting her audience—with Francine’s abject humiliation. As antiporn picketers, protesting her husband’s theater, storm her lawn and hurl tomatoes at her, she hilariously self-identifies as a “good Christian woman,” a middle-class housewife who pinches her nose in the face of the putrid world around her, marked by a shame that others make her bear. The unruly impulses and perverse desires of her kin permeate her psychic space like an offending miasma. Pink Flamingos’ Babs Johnson wielded her motto “Filth are my politics; filth is my life,” a defiant purveyor of obscenity and assailant of middle-class morals; hippie, be-natural pieties; and right-wing sanctimony. But Francine—ever the “normal” and the prude—is obscenity’s unwitting victim, a bluenose besieged at every turn by her own family’s shameless vulgarity, prisoner of its founding sins.
They assail Francine’s moral rectitude with a Rube Goldberg–ian regularity. Her husband, the rug-wearing Elmer Fishpaw (David Samson), a sleazy philanderer, courts ill repute and public ire as the local porn-theater owner, and deserts her to turn his motel trysts with his scrawny, Bo Derek–wannabe secretary Sandra (Mink Stole) into a veritable “erotic lifestyle.” Francine’s nymphomaniac daughter, Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington), in an incessant state of Hula-Hooping gyration, dances for quarters at school, gets straight Fs, and is in love with psychopathic speed freak Bo-Bo (punk rocker Stiv Bators). Lu-Lu’s shenanigans lead to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an attempted abortion, and then a miscarriage. Francine’s son, Dexter (Ken King), perennially delirious from glue sniffing, has a fetish that could have pranced off the pages of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis: stomping on women’s feet in grocery stores and mall parking lots. On the nightly news, he earns the moniker the Baltimore Foot Stomper. And Francine’s shrieky mother, La Rue (Joni Ruth White), like a fiendish jack-in-the-box, pops in only to acerbically body-shame her obese daughter, while plotting to defraud her of her savings. Francine cannot act but only react to this relay system of infractions.
Francine’s proboscis, a most sensitive organ, is the comical target zone of her hysterical permeability, but it is also an instrument of detection. As she follows the scent trail of each loved one’s transgressions, her faculty for sniffing out disorder is both blessing and curse, leading to a descent into bawling alcoholism and existential despair, including a suicide attempt with a rope tied to her smiley-face-adorned fridge. Francine’s only port of call is her debutante friend Cuddles (played with boundless good-girl brio by the outsider extraordinaire and Flamingos “egg lady” Edith Massey), Francine’s former housekeeper and the beneficiary of an inheritance that has made her filthy rich, tended to in her every need by her chauffeur, Heintz (Hans Kramm). Cuddles, who cavorts in preppy tennis togs with shoulder-draped sweater, or in jodhpurs and riding boots, stops in to distract Francine, “the most drinking-est gal I’ve ever seen,” from her misery with shopping sprees and yellow cake with frosting for brunch. Cuddles is the one who reports on Elmer’s adultery with his trashy, cornrow-sporting mistress, proclaiming in that halting Massey diction, “At first I thought he was walking the dog, but then I realized it was his date!” Cuddles’s absurd reversal of fortune makes her an ideal foil for Francine. Her obsession with cotillions, Connecticut, Halston, and everything au courant, and her blithely sunny view of life—“Fran-cine, happiness is a picnic in the woods!”—only pour salt into our heroine’s wounds, reaffirming the cruel vagaries of fate. At that very picnic, nature quickly rebels and contaminates the fun, ejecting them much like the couch that repels its sitters in Pink Flamingos. Crawling ants appear in their “sandy-wiches,” and a spraying skunk arrives to confirm the rottenness of such naive, benighted ideals. Who needs nature or happiness when you have the synthetic weft and waft of polyester and air freshener?
“The film wryly and reflexively narrates Waters’ own place in the film industry, at once huckster, shrink, and soothsayer.”
Waters takes impish pleasure in such juxtapositions, reversals, and textural frictions. No contrast is more triumphant than that between Divine’s pyretic femme and Hunter’s seductive butch. The director was prescient in his choice of Hunter for the role of Todd Tomorrow, reviving the actor’s weathered hunkiness from his barely faded glory as Hollywood’s wet-dream-boat, for men and women alike. Waters zeroed in on the perverse irony of playing Francine and Todd’s romantic relationship “straight” years before Hunter finally came out as gay, in his 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential (a documentary based on it was released in 2015). Hardly an Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which takes a decidedly more earnest approach to the social tolls of “impossible” love across boundaries, Polyester nevertheless revels in the romantic improbability of Francine and Todd, as the courtship follows a preposterous plot. Wooed while gawking at a bloody car crash as paramedics pick up severed heads, Francine falls head over cha-cha heels for the beguiling stranger, whose first invitation is a lure to smell his shiny, priapic Corvette. Besotted by “new-car scent” and Todd’s classy pedigree—he runs a posh art cinema that serves caviar and champagne, a far cry from Elmer’s betraying sleaze—Francine succumbs to her living-Hallmark-card fantasy. Yet capitalism, patriarchy, and romance are, as ever, a conspiratorial brew. The “deodorant commercial” that is Francine’s affair with Todd—slow-motion romps in autumnal fields included—comes to a harshly screeching denouement, another tragedy foretold: Todd, too, is a faker and a gold digger, in cahoots with Francine’s odious mother.
The film’s box-office success testified to the capacity of Waters’ underground sensibility to reach wider audiences. Polyester’s “accessibility” set the stage for the filmmaker’s ascension to the position of America’s degenerate sweetheart with Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), and Serial Mom (1994), films that also plumbed the aberrant enchantments and hidden impulses of a normie Americana but embraced a populist humor that worked less blue. Some fans may have thought Polyester a sellout of a sort; Waters waggishly retorted in an interview, “I’ve been trying to sell out for years. It’s just that no one would buy me before.”
A tribute to the lost art of exploitation showmanship, this film also wryly and reflexively narrates Waters’ own place in the film industry, at once huckster, shrink, and soothsayer. Francine’s two men, both film exhibitors, resonate with the director’s position in that moment, shuttling between smut and art. And like Francine, who negotiates between a failed marriage to the incorrigible porn peddler and a whirlwind affair with the refined art-house tastemaker, Waters clearly revered the bawdiness and gravitas of both. If anything, he recognized that both modes of filmmaking were also on their way out in 1981, being eclipsed by more severe zoning laws, community decency crusades, VHS’s lure, and the waning of independent exhibition, as cookie-cutter blockbusters made for megaplexes proliferated. With the onset of the Reagan era, a different kind of cinema may have been required. Waters’ appreciation for the powers of porn and art cinemas also emphasizes the falsity of their opposition, as they clearly share publics obsessed with the cultivation of acute tastes that test the body’s limits—whether for burning bushes or oyster platters, XXX skin flicks or triple bills of Marguerite Duras.
Polyester’s metanarrative about film exhibition revisits the fifties moment in which American film producers seriously experimented with incorporating scent into the cinematic experience. Such forms of hullabaloo had been pursued by raconteurs and dreamers like Waters’ idol William Castle, director and gimmickry maestro of Macabre, Homicidal, and other carny delights. In his The Tingler (1959), a scientist discovers a parasite that attaches to the spine and thrives on human fear, and can be expelled only by screaming. Castle had select theater seats wired with a vibrating contraption he called Percepto, which would go off in correspondence with the screen action. Writing in the essay collection Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1983), Waters devotionally recounted this transformative ass-buzzing gimmick: “As I sat there experiencing the miracle of Percepto, I realized that there could be such a thing as Art in the cinema.”
Coextensive with Castle’s shaping of the cinemagoing event, the scent gimmicks Smell-O-Vision, used for producer Mike Todd Jr.’s Scent of Mystery, and AromaRama, which accompanied a travelogue film about China, Behind the Great Wall, represented both a horizon of aspiration and a last-gasp effort that hoped to entice audiences back to movies from television and other leisure activities. These sensory experiments promised a way to rediscover cinema’s specificity as a medium. Smell-O-Vision employed a mechanism, originally invented by Hans Laube in 1939, that would deliver scents to the seats of spectators in specially rigged theaters. Piped-in scents would signal moments of narrative punctuation or provide clues to the unfolding mystery plot. But they would also linger, leaving a stale miasma of belated odoriferous muck.
Waters converted this grand, if failed, sensory project into something more modular, memorable, and oddly durable in the popular imagination. Polyester’s exhibitors provided audiences with scratch-and-sniff cards bearing ten numbered scents. The cards corroborated Francine’s malodorous universe: as a number flashed on-screen, audiences scratched the cards for an olfactory punch line, or rather, a comical punch in the nose. Aware that such a device broke the spell of absorption rather than securing it, Waters laid on the gross-out gambit, relying on a largely noxious library of smells, from Elmer’s nocturnal gas (number 2!) to dirty tennis shoes, from the party-pooper skunk to pizza. Scratch and sniff could be a form of sensory alliance with Francine’s desultory plight, with melodrama’s empathic aims justifying the necessity of a panoply of stinks, rather than mollifying aromas.
The domain of scent could deliver on a promise and a threat that Waters’ utterly visceral films, from the short Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) onward, always disclosed: a pledge to a scatological and sexually anarchic vision of provoking involuntary responses and shattering corporeal taboos. Waters’ audacity insists that smell (like shit) is material for cinematic art to think and feel with.
As Polyester concludes in a fortuitous double auto homicide of Todd and La Rue after they have attempted to kill Francine, our heroine grasps to hug her sniveling children, both recently reformed from their delinquency through the power of capital-A Art—painting and macramé. She sprays the air prophylactically with a can of Glade. This gesture can be read only as critical farce, a feeble smoothing over of the ravages that Francine’s body and psyche have endured at the hands of narrative fate’s fickle machinations. It is a “happy ending” in camp quotes, delivered in a wittily draped aerosol bouquet.