Dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, Female Trouble is John Waters’s juiciest trash epic, and his tightest treatise on the dangerous political persuasiveness of depravity. Back when such a thing could be considered fun. The last film to feature all of the original Mondo Trasho Dreamlanders, Female Trouble was bookended on either side by Pink Flamingos, Waters’s midnight-movie breakthrough, and the Divine-free Desperate Living, to date probably still his deepest, funniest descent into bad taste. All three films are structured as accelerated plunges into the toilet bowl of Waters’s fevered imagination, but Female Trouble is the only one that underpins that nasty swirl against the disreputable cinematic genres that so fascinated the director in his formative years. It’s a cinematic bildungsroman, with all emphasis on the “dung.”
In her meatiest role outside of Polyester’s Francine Fishpaw, Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a beehive-sporting juvenile delinquent who, following a tree-tossing Christmas tantrum when her parents fail to gift her a pair of cha-cha heels, grows up to become the grotesque inversion of Marlene Dietrich’s mother-showgirl in Blonde Venus. A stripper who passes time eating tire-sized donuts and getting her hair done at the skid-row Baltimore equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Factory, Dawn also reluctantly rears—if “rearing” can be said to come from the business end of a car aerial to the back—her bratty daughter, Taffy (Mink Stole), who she had in a misguided teenhood tryst with a mechanic (also played by Divine, in “male drag,” including skidmark-streaked underwear). Dawn’s gutter veracity attracts the attention of the salon’s effete owners, Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), who have an up-is-down appreciation for the stench of society’s disreputable underbelly. They turn Dawn into their pet project, injecting liquid eyeliner into her veins and photographing her gleeful self-debasement.
Female Trouble is a balancing act between the goriness of the cult movies that fascinated Waters and the brash melodrama of the Elizabeth Taylor films that Divine preferred; Waters feeds her as many enviable lines of dialogue as Taylor herself got from Edward Albee when making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film that is nearly Female Trouble’s equal when it comes to acerbically comedic wrath. More than twice as expensive to produce as Pink Flamingos had been (respectively $27,000 to $12,000, neither a patch on the coin dropped on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra), it buttresses Divine in the flea-bitten opulence of Vincent Peranio’s production design and Van Smith’s costumes and makeup. (The peek-a-boo leather get-up he made for Edith Massey’s snaggletoothed Aunt Ida alone should’ve won him the Oscar.)
But the grandest leap forward is in Waters’s own skills as a scenarist and screenwriter. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries,” Aunt Ida tells her hairdresser nephew, Gator (Michael Potter), who she desperately wants to convert to homosexuality. “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” The dialogue is as plummy as Waters had ever conceived up to that point, but for arguably the first time in his career, it supports a narrative that goes beyond shock value and into artful terrorist auto-critique. In Pink Flamingos, Divine’s quest to earn the title “filthiest person alive” is an end unto itself. In Female Trouble, Dawn Davenport’s crime spree is transmuted into a précis on the state of the Dreamlanders’ art itself. Dawn’s increasingly punk-inspired looks culminate in a carnivalesque guerilla theater act put on by the Dashers, in which she jumps on a trampoline, tears a phone book in half, and jumps into a playpen filled with dead fish. The hipster audience’s response to the freak show to that point is both appreciative and patronizing, until a revolver-swinging Dawn asks, “Who wants to die for art?” And then begins firing into the crowd.
Waters is a noted aficionado of criminal trials, netting infamy for insinuating himself upon members of the Manson family. As Female Trouble shifts into a parody of courtroom drama, Dawn takes the fall for all her co-conspirators, though she does so quite willingly. The death penalty is, as she points out, the equivalent of the Academy Award in her “profession,” and her transformation into the embodiment of art-as-crime comes into full bloom. Conversely, the Dashers’ instant flip from Dawn’s cheer team of perversity to distraught victims on the witness stand comes to represent the capriciousness of audiences who, to quote Björk, say they want but then can’t handle. Female Trouble, a film that went out unrated but which Waters impishly wrote in the original press notes would probably merit an “R minus,” comes as close as any of his films to erasing the line separating the spectator and the seething, maladaptive objects on display for them.
This disc looks so fucking good that even the menu screen, which utilizes dirt-ridden outtakes that resemble nothing so much as a forgotten grindhouse reel, is a gift from the heights of Mount Trash Olympus. The image is so pristine that you can see every blemish, and the colors of Peranio’s sets are bold and garish, especially the reds. It looks like a glorious, grainy, 16mm venereal disease, or, as Dawn would say, "Pretty, pretty!" The uncompressed monaural sound is shrill and hollow, which is to say, perfect. Every one of Massey’s stilted, halting line deliveries punches through your speakers.
You don’t improve upon perfection. Criterion ports over the commentary track that John Waters did for Female Trouble’s 2004 DVD release, and it’s a beaut. Waters reminisces about the by-the-fingernails nature of making films back in his early days (the newborn baby that Divine gives birth to in a flophouse was actually actress Susan Lowe’s), laments the passing of so many of his colleagues, puts the film’s terrorist art in its proper historical context, and revels in the hideous authenticity of Baltimore’s locations. A master storyteller, Waters invites you right into the family, telling you details about crew members you’d otherwise have no passing interest in learning more about and getting you to feel as though you’ve just caught up with old friends.
While I don’t doubt Waters could’ve recorded a new commentary track, Criterion’s disc opts instead for a fresh conversation between the director and critic Dennis Lim, whose prim demeanor is a study in contrast with Waters’s well-heeled ribaldry. Waters sticks around to interview Hilary Taylor, who, as a girl, played the young Taffy—and who remembers way more about the experience than social services probably would prefer. (In fact, she grew up to become a social worker, so there’s that.) Additionally, there are archival clips of other Dreamlander troupe members from the mid ’70s, the centerpiece of which is a roundtable at Warhol’s Factory involving Waters, Divine, David Lochary, and Mink Stole. Rounding things out are cut scenes, all above average, and an essay by Ed Halter. Short of a syringe filled with eyeliner, the set’s a pair of cha-cha heels in a brightly wrapped Christmas package.
Both John Waters and Divine have referred to Female Trouble as their favorite mutual collaboration. The Criterion Collection releasing it during Pride Month proves that their sense of humor is just as sick.