How does one follow up a legendary affront to decency? In John Waters’ case, he moved on. Female Trouble, which Waters made two years after his notorious Pink Flamingos, is significantly less gross and considerably more advanced in its satire. The movie’s theme is “Crime is beauty,” which Waters half believes and half doesn’t.
Waters’ incomparable star Divine returns as Dawn Davenport, a surly teenager who runs away from home after her parents fail to give her cha-cha boots for Christmas. “I hate you! I hate this house! I hate Christmas!!” she screams, and we’re off and running. Female Trouble follows Dawn from juvenile delinquency to early motherhood to a dubious career in the arts, so it’s an epic of sorts.
Dawn is raped by a random slob (also played by Divine in boy mode; Divine shares with Anne Carlisle in Liquid Sky the unique distinction of playing a sex scene opposite oneself) and gives birth to Taffy, a shriekingly bratty girl played as a teen by Mink Stole, who gets the movie’s most-quoted line: “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” This line, by the way, is directed to Dawn’s shabby husband Gator (Michael Potter), Taffy’s stepdad, a hairdresser who doesn’t even have enough style to be gay. Gator’s Aunt Ida (the incomparable Edith Massey) bemoans his sexual squareness: “Honey, I wish you was queer…. Heterosexuality is a sick and boring lifestyle.”
How Ida winds up in a giant birdcage with a hook for a hand is best left for the adventurous viewer to discover. This is early John Waters, so a lot of Female Trouble still plays like shock for shock’s sake — for instance, a jarring close-up of Gator’s genitalia (There’s Something About Mary, with its similar frank-and-beans shot, owes more than a little to Waters) — but its ideas are more provocative than its imagery. Dawn falls in with the upper-crust Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pierce), who run the beauty salon Dawn frequents. They love her outlaw trashiness and encourage her to commit crimes while they snap photos of her.
Even back then, Waters seemed to be tweaking the uptown samplers of his underground films, the art-house denizens who considered it a status symbol simply to have watched Pink Flamingos without walking out. Terrence Rafferty wrote about The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (another film that probably wasn’t possible without the trails Waters blazed), “To sit through it with an unshockable air is to demonstrate, irrefutably, one’s liberal cojones.” Rafferty could have been referring to Waters’ early movies, which were often taken as must-see events among the hipsters. Pink Flamingos was a midnight-movie hit, and Waters’ absolutely typical response was to bite the hand that fed him. The Dashers are meant to be taken as arrogant exploiters (and exclusionary snobs who reject potential customers for not having sufficiently fabulous and/or tacky jobs). They keep Dawn in a state of denial, even after Ida hurls acid in Dawn’s face, reducing it to a mask of stucco-looking scar tissue. Everyone around Dawn convinces her that she’s more beautiful than ever, but we get the sense that they’re not telling her this to comfort her but to keep her a viable cash cow.
At heart, Female Trouble — right down to its title (a better one than Waters’ original idea, Rotten Face, Rotten Mind) — is Waters’ skanky rewrite of the Douglas Sirk women’s weepies of the ’50s (a subgenre he would return to with Polyester). Nothing ever goes right for Dawn; she’s taken advantage of wherever she turns. And of course everyone abandons her when she’s on trial for murder, for which she gets the electric chair (a prop that remains in Waters’ Baltimore home). Dawn’s head has been so thoroughly twisted by now that she greets capital punishment as the ultimate stage in her outlaw career. She goes out bald and scarred and grinning, and I think Waters relishes that final shot of her as much as he did the infamous doggie-doo shot in Pink Flamingos. The movie carries a dedication to Manson family member Charles “Tex” Watson, but I’d say Waters is more taken with the idea of murderers, and the morbidly fascinated media that circle around them, than with actual murderers, who tend to be boring in real life aside from their lurid deeds.
Female Trouble is an ode to bad-girl behavior and a sly slap at those who would profit from it, and it gives the mighty Divine a chance to take a character from relatively innocent girlhood to fortyish insanity. What other director would have given Divine, or anyone else in this film, an opportunity like that?