Walt Disney does John Waters: 'Beautiful'

Offbeat director's progressive notion of female beauty infuses cable movie


October 19, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

John Waters and Walt Disney on the same wavelength is not something I ever would have predicted. But then, the one thing that makes even stranger bedfellows than politics is popular culture -- particularly when there's a mega-hit like the Broadway adaptation of Waters' 1988 film, Hairspray, involved.

Disney's ABC Family cable channel tonight will present Beautiful Girl, a made-for-TV movie produced by Disney's Touchstone Productions about a young woman who becomes an unlikely beauty pageant contestant. And, though Waters is not directly involved in making or owning the cable movie, his inspirational vision about beauty, body size, self-concept and success permeates every single frame.

A major part of that sensibility evolves from the presence of Marissa Jaret Winokur -- who won a 2003 Tony Award for her portrayal of Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray -- as star and executive producer of Beautiful Girl. But deeper cultural currents also appear to be flowing here.

The modest production is airing on a relatively small basic cable channel and is easy to overlook, particularly on a Sunday night with all sorts of sports and new fall programming elsewhere on the dial. So maybe it's foolish to get too excited.

Nonetheless, this is the way popular culture usually works: A hit based on a highly original vision in one medium is imitated over and over in other genres and forms. Usually, we complain about such imitation, criticizing Hollywood for a lack of imagination and penchant for uninspired rip-offs.

But in this case, the imitation of Waters' big-screen and Broadway vision offers an attractive and convincing mainstream corrective to the destructive television messages that have assaulted American adolescents since the end of World War II. If Beautiful Girl signals that Waters' sensibilities are seeping into mainstream television culture (where audiences are only measured in the millions), we'll all be better for it.

No giving up

Beautiful Girl is the story of Becca Wasserman (Winokur), a young woman defined by her spirit, not her size. She's not fashion-model thin, but she's intelligent, well-liked and spunky. She also lights up a stage with her singing and dancing.

Becca, an elementary school music teacher, is about to marry a karoake club bartender (Mark Consuelos). The couple doesn't have much money, so Becca enters a beauty pageant in hopes of winning a honeymoon -- a trip for two to Hawaii. Her mother (Fran Drescher) discourages her, both because she's afraid Becca's feelings will be hurt and because she thinks Becca's sister (Sarah Manninen), "the pretty one in the family," is better suited for the contest.

Becca doesn't give up easily and, before the film ends, enters two beauty pageants. Beautiful Girl skillfully uses the pageants to create and sustain drama, but the story is not about winning or losing. It's about Becca's journey of self-discovery.

Understand that Beautiful Girl is directed primarily at teen and pre-teen girls, an audience with which ABC Family is very popular. To adult viewers, it may seem heavy-handed or preachy, and no wonder. Characters at times make statements such as: ""Maybe they'll realize you don't have to be a Barbie Doll to be beautiful."

And in case anyone has missed the movie's theme, it is stated in no uncertain words: "The things that make us different from everybody else are the very things that make us beautiful."

That's a watered-down version of Waters' notion of "different" as beautiful. Waters, of course, goes way beyond challenging mainstream, Madison Avenue-inspired notions of beauty and body size to take on far more entrenched and fundamental ideas about gender and social class. ABC Family isn't quite ready for men in drag playing mom. (Drescher is close enough to "edgy" for a family-oriented cable channel, thank you very much.)

As always, network television pulls everything back from the edge as it repackages material for mainstream consumption. The recklessness of teen rebellion suggested on film in the 1950s by Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, for example, was greatly diluted when in the 1970s ABC finally allowed a boy in black leather into American living rooms in the person of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on Happy Days.

A lesson for girls

Disney's version of "different is beautiful" is OK by me, particularly in light of the ancillary messages about homogenized and mass-produced notions of beauty that are also part of the Beautiful Girl package.

In one scene, when a fourth grader performs a Britney Spears-inspired rendition of Oh, Susanna, she exposes her mid-section by rolling up her T-shirt and mimics Spears' highly-sexualized body language. The result is a grotesque metaphor for the way children are sexualized by popular culture at younger and younger ages.

When the child tells Becca she is trying to be like Spears, the teacher says, "But you're not Britney Spears. You're Mona Spellman. Wouldn't you rather be somebody you are rather than imitate somebody you're not?"

Spears recently has been much discussed in these parts thanks to the ill-chosen comments of Kendel Ehrlich, the wife of Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., about how she would like to "shoot" Spears because of her influence on girls. Here's a different suggestion: Sit down with your kids tonight -- especially if they are adolescent girls -- and watch Beautiful Girl.

Then talk with them about what you've watched.

On television

What: Beautiful Girl.

When: Tonight at 8.

Where: ABC Family channel.

In brief: A Hairspray-inspired film about the beauty of being different.

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