John Waters’ Demented Masterwork ‘Female Trouble’ is Enshrined in the Criterion Collection

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Female Trouble Criterion

And I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself! – Dawn Davenport

He’s known as the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke. He’s John Waters, one of the most shocking and hilarious filmmakers in the history of cinema. With his unique films Waters has lived in the bizarre intersection of high art and low trash. Inspired by foreign art films, grindhouse exploitation flicks, and the artsy stylings of Andy Warhol, Waters and his group of friends started making their own oddball movies under the banner of Dreamland Productions. The movies were aggressive in their crudeness, with Waters writing snappy dialogue featuring insults coated in barbed wire while pushing the limits of cinematic decency with grotesque perversions unflinchingly shown. Waters’ central star was Divine, a 300-pound drag queen with an unmistakable screen presence heavily inspired by the work of Elizabeth Taylor.

Waters, Divine, and the rest of the Dreamlanders broke out with their cult classic Multiple Maniacs (available as part of the Criterion Collection). Then the wildest thing happened. They had a major hit. Pink Flamingos was the major breakout for Waters, Divine, and company. It was the quintessential midnight movie, outlandish in every sense and equally grotesque. How does one follow up a controversial movie that shocked audiences without becoming derivative? That wasn’t much of a problem for Waters and his Dreamlanders as they’d follow up Pink Flamingos with what would be Waters’ masterpiece of trash, Female Trouble. Now Waters’ finest collaboration with Divine lands on Blu-ray thanks to a stunning new edition from the Criterion Collection – further cementing John Waters’ legacy as that rare filmmaker who can weave between exploitative trash and high art.

Female Trouble is the story of Dawn Davenport (Divine) and her transformation from teenage delinquent into a superstar of mass murder. As Davenport herself says, “I’m a thief and a shit-kicker, and I’d like to be famous.” Before she becomes a tabloid sensation, Dawn Davenport is a crude teenager in the suburbs of Baltimore with her friend Consetta (Cooke Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh). Davenport’s descent into a life of crime starts when her parents refuse to give her a pair of black cha-cha heels for Christmas. “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels!” her father exclaims before the angsty teenager throws a tantrum and storms out of her house for good in one of Waters’ funniest scenes ever.

This, mind you, occurs within just a few short minutes of the film’s opening. On the run from her family, Dawn encounters Earl Peterson (Divine sans makeup) where the two strangers have a “romantic” encounter on a mattress dumped in the woods. Yes, barely ten minutes into Female Trouble and John Waters has a scene where Divine fucks himself. That leaves Dawn pregnant with a father uninterested in raising his illegitimate daughter, Taffy (played by Hilary Taylor as a young child and then Mink Stole as a slightly older child). It’s after working a few low-paying jobs that Dawn and her cohorts commit themselves to a life of crime.

Of course, Dawn, Chicklette, and Consetta can’t just be lowly criminals. They must look fabulous, which leads them to the Lipstick Beauty Salon, an exclusive beauty parlor where the owners Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pierce) interview prospective clients. It’s in that beauty parlor that Dawn meets her future husband Gater (Michael Porter), much to the dismay of his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) who longs for her nephew to be a homosexual. Eventually, Dawn becomes the subject of an art experiment conducted by the Dashers, one that sees crime and beauty intertwined. They want Dawn to allow her crimes to be documented, presenting the low level criminal a chance at superstardom.

Female Trouble features so many of the pet fascinations that Waters has slipped into his work across varying mediums over his lengthy career, but two really stand out. In the opening credits he dedicates the film to Charles “Tex” Watson, a member of the Manson Family, something that has always interested Waters, who eventually became friends with the filmmaker while in prison. Waters has always been fascinated by the intersection of criminality and infamy, and his outlandish take on the two was ahead of its time in predicting true crime television shows and reality television that creates people obsessed with these fringes of society.

The other fascination of Waters that finds itself in Female Trouble is bad taste. The hair and fashions are over the top in the most extreme ways – look no further than the costumes that Edith Massey wears. And yet, like his examination of crime and infamy, it was ahead of the curve, adopting a punk aesthetic before anyone knew there was such a thing. Today, even Divine’s most shocking hairstyle in the film is rather conventional over 40 years later.

When looking at the films of John Waters, especially his earlier work with Divine, most people focus on the films’ shock vaule, which is incredibly high. But focusing so intently on the more risqué aspects of Waters’ work overshadows his incredible gifts as a storyteller. That’s especially evident in Female Trouble, which, as I mentioned before, is really the high-water mark of his early films. Waters’ films are just a hair over 90 minutes and it’s incredibly smart filmmaking choice as it doesn’t allow the audience to become numb or tired of the more outrageous and grotesque aspects of his works. The narratives of his movies, even the very early works, have a forward momentum driving their outlandish plots forward. The dialogue is snappy and crude, as hilarious as it is memorable. The characters come to vivid life because of pitch-perfect casting, that often works in unison with rapid fire dialogue to overshadow any acting shortcomings of his actors.

As with any Criterion release, this new edition of Female Trouble is packed with special features. There’s the audio commentary from 2004 which Waters recorded for the film’s initial DVD release, but it’s still a hilarious and informative commentary track. The fact is that John Waters provides some of the best audio commentary tracks ever. The disc also boasts some incredible rarities, including deleted scenes and behind the scenes footage. The deleted scenes don’t have audio but are still fascinating to behold and reinforce that Waters made the correct choices to keep Female Trouble a lean and mean crude machine. There is also a lengthy discussion about the film with Waters and critic Dennis Lim that is lively and often hilarious. Then there are interviews new and old with some of Waters’ collaborators, including Mink Stole and Pat Moran, as well as a wild 1975 interview with Waters, Divine, and David Lochary. And yet there’s still a tinge of sadness to these interviews as Waters and his friends have to remember all the friends from the Dreamland family that have passed away, many at young age.

Over the past couple years the Criterion Collection has gotten cooler. It has always been a physical media haven for film lovers of all stripes, but recently they’ve embraced more off the wall films, such as Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. The addition of Female Trouble continues this very cool trend, as many film lovers are just as dedicated to the works of John Waters as they are to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Cinema as an art form is so expansive that there’s plenty of room within the Criterion Collection for John Waters’ Female Trouble to share the same hallowed space as Federico Fellini’s and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. It’s glorious that Divine has a place amongst the greats of cinema with Female Trouble taking its rightful place among the Criterion Collection in a must-own edition for all fans of the films of John Waters.

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