Filmgoers can get deeper into `Trouble'

Movie: John Waters says his new cut of `Female Trouble' is more complete than any version that's come before.

Film

October 05, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Bad taste has its standards, and as far as John Waters is concerned, they weren't being met for Female Trouble until he assembled the version of the film now being shown at the Senator Theatre and released in a two-pack DVD with Pink Flamingos, complete with full-length director's commentaries.

Back in 1974, Maryland censor Mary Avara made him cut a shot of a nude girl's hips moving and tried to make him cut any shot where she thought that the "womanhood" of his star, Divine, was showing - never mind that Divine was a man. Right before the film was released, "a nameless executive" declared the movie too long and cut the scene of Divine swimming across a river in full drag, even though, in terms of a performer's daring, it was the cult-film equivalent of Lillian Gish floating among the ice floes in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East.

Video companies across the world, determined to fit a 92-minute movie onto a 90-minute tape, randomly cut a couple of minutes wherever they saw fit. Maybe worst of all, when New Line Cinema decided to follow up on the success of Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs by giving Female Trouble a bigger roll-out, it blew the film up from 16mm to 35mm - thereby cutting the tops off the characters' sky-high hairdos and the bottoms off their garish shoes.

But thanks to a restoration that included matting the 35mm image to the correct proportions, any adult can now witness, on the big screen at the Senator (one of Waters' childhood hangouts), Divine's heights of physical audacity, the tips of beehive hair - and even those controversial glimpses of the "cheater," the bit of equipment that made Avara think Divine's womanhood was the real thing.

Over the phone from his Baltimore office, Waters says he's surprised that the MPAA rating board thought the restored Female Trouble warranted an NC-17 instead of an R. But he isn't unhappy. For one thing, he says, it protects him: "When Pink Flamingos went out without an NC-17, we were always getting busted in video stores. It's because families who loved Hairspray would go looking for another John Waters movie. Most video stores don't have a `cult film' section, so they would just put Pink Flamingos next to Hairspray in the comedy section, and that was asking for trouble."

And Waters is tickled that a 27-year-old movie would still win the harshest rating on the market. "I just saw the movie the other night in Los Angeles, on the highest Jewish holiday, in the middle of a war, and there were 600 people there, and the average age was 25, and they really liked it. Believe me, it doesn't mellow with age - it may even get worse."

Female Trouble is Waters' favorite among his early movies, and he deliberately held it back from re-release until it could be done right. It's the only one he wrote as a star vehicle for Divine, who plays both a woman and a man so at one point she can, uh, have sex with herself. Waters gave his star histrionic arias that are pure Elizabeth Taylor from the era of Boom! and Secret Ceremony. "I met Liz Taylor," Waters recalls, "and she did look like Divine - well, she wasn't as big as Divine, but she wasn't as small as Liz Taylor - and she had a great sense of humor and at her parties she served what Divine would have served: liquor, champagne and candy."

The plot stews together Jean Genet's ideas of the beauty of crime and Waters' own burgeoning notions of the cult of criminality, along with ingredients from high-powered gal-in-prison movies like Susan Hayward's Oscar-winner I Want to Live!

By the time she's put in the slammer, Waters' heroine, Dawn Davenport, has slammed her mother with a Christmas tree for failing to get her preferred gift ("cha-cha shoes"), had a bad marriage with a good-looking loser whose mother wants him to be gay, raised a loathsome daughter (played by Mink Stole) and become the brainwashed pawn of "fascist beauticians" who use her to test their theories of the art of crime. Their collaboration peaks when Divine interrupts her nightclub trampoline act to spray bullets at the audience.

"Everybody looks better under arrest," Waters explains. "I used to go to demonstrations partly because the hippies looked so good." So in Female Trouble, he says, "I kind of exaggerated that and turned it into this cult of women that at that time looked like the scariest women in Baltimore. I mean, their hair was seven inches higher than their head!"

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