|"She had a lot of problems." That was the not inaccurate tagline for writer and director John Waters' Female Trouble, the follow-up to his notorious cult classic Pink Flamingos, which took some time to find its feet, as well as its place in his canon. For a while it was regarded as a disappointment by some who wanted a straight sequel to the previous effort, one which would have gone even further in its outrageousness, yet considering that film ended with its star Divine picking up and eating dogshit from the pavement, it's difficult to see what would have succeeded as a case of one-upmanship against himself.
When you think about it, the only thing Waters could have done would be to kill someone on camera, or perhaps cannibalism, some last taboo that tawdry items like the unconvincing Snuff tried to convince audiences were real in the seventies, and given this was a decade that seemed to be trying to outdo itself in real life depravity anyway, he was wise to take a different tack. That approach was to stay with the shock value but build on his burgeoning experience in filmmaking and tell more of a story than before, as his other, past work had effectively been a collection of skits with some vague linking theme.
Waters was also seeing more films, his favourites being the excesses of the struggling Hollywood in its near-death throes before it re-established itself when the corporate billions took over and the blockbusters created a go for broke culture in popular movies, and the art films that were being released, mostly from Europe - Rainer Werner Fassbinder was particularly admired by him - that went as far as they could in putting across the extremes of relationships. Amidst that, he was also checking out what was going on in the underground scene from his fellow filmmakers operating on tiny budgets but with big ideas.
And with subversion on their minds, much as Waters had, the keenness to shock and surprise mixed with his need to bring revulsion to the cinematic table. Horror movies of the day were latching onto this as a method of bringing in the punters to grindhouses and drive-ins, taking their lead from Herschell Gordon Lewis in the sixties, but he was just as keen to emulate the trash epics of Russ Meyer, whose drive for titillation was as great as his love of overheated melodrama to frame his stories. For Divine, Elizabeth Taylor was the great idol, as Taylor was moving past her "most beautiful woman in the world" stage.
You can see Divine's Dawn Davenport as a spoof of Taylor (especially in something like Boom!), but weirdly, also a sincere tribute to her increasingly wobbly status as a style icon and global celebrity. He was probably a little young for Judy Garland to have made that kind of impact, but Taylor in the seventies was as perfect for him to aspire to as Waters did for directors like Douglas Sirk (Dawn's daughter Mink Stole is hilariously ungrateful on the level of a Lana Turner flick), as well as horrendous criminals he liked to namecheck (not so much Charles Manson this time, as Richard Speck briefly supplanted him in Waters' obsessions).
As Waters admits, Female Trouble was his attempt to cast Divine, not in a Taylor movie, but an Isabel Sarli vehicle, the Argentinian sex symbol who once you have seen some of her sensational for its time in Argentina output is plainly the inspiration for Dawn. Sarli and her mentor/lover Armando Bo were prolific enough to have their films released in North America in light of how huge she was in South America, and while audiences were supposed to be both dismayed at her character's over the top plights and turned on by her frequent nude scenes, in Waters' tribute the point was solely to make his viewers laugh. And throw up in their mouths a little.
You could spend quite a while going over the offences against good taste in Female Trouble, and it assuredly was not for everyone, but should you attune to Waters' wavelength you may find yourself laughing frequently at the ludicrous antics of Dawn and those in her orbit. Divine and Waters both believed it was their best film together, and they were not wrong, it sees them both having so much fun being bad, it's infectious (like an STD, perhaps, but a fun one). It was tinged with sadness in that it was their final work with key Dreamland Player David Lochary, who would fatally injure himself during a PCP overdose in 1977, just as Waters' next movie Desperate Living was released. But it features the Dreamlanders at their best, including Mary Vivian Pearce as Lochary's precious wife who encourage Dawn to fresh depths of depravity, and the inimitable Edith Massey as her raucous, gay-obsessed next door neighbour. It was certainly the only film you would ever see where the protagonist rapes himself. If that arouses your curiosity, you owed it to yourself to check out Female Trouble.
[Female Trouble is released uncut on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection with the following excellent features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director John Waters, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Waters
New conversation between Waters and critic Dennis Lim
New and archival interviews with cast and crew members Mink Stole, Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Susan Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce, Hilary Taylor, and Van Smith
Interview from 1975 featuring Waters and cast members Divine, Stole, and David Lochary
Deleted scenes and alternate takes
Rare on-set footage
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film critic Ed Halter.]