Polyester is best described as Leave it to Beaver on PCP, a satire of the nuclear family and 60s melodrama popularized by the likes of Douglas Sirk. The film represented a turning point of sorts for director John Waters in that it was the Baltimore filmmaker’s bid for the semi-mainstream. This is not to say that Polyester is a film you can safely watch with your grandma — just that it doesn’t culminate with a plus-sized transvestite eating dog feces or being sexually assaulted by an enormous crab.
The film stars Waters’ muse Divine as Francine Fishpaw. On the surface Francine has it all – the husband, the house in the ‘burbs, and the 2.7 children. But to quote the scientist at the beginning “Some things in life just plain stink.” Her husband is an unfaithful lout who owns a porno “thee-ate-ur,” which plays smut flicks like “My Burning Bush”. Her daughter is impregnated by her delinquent boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys), and her son is a glue-huffing foot-fetishist who moonlights as The Stomper, a toe-crushing terror-at-large.
Francine’s only friend and confidante is Cuddles, played by the unforgettable Waters’ regular Edith Massey. The snaggle-toothed and adorable Massey is decidedly not an actress, but man is she a presence. Her delightfully off-kilter readings turn lines such as “Look Francine…Tab for our diets!” and “Sandwiches…wow!” into side-splitters.
Francine’s life spirals ever downward when she discovers her husband’s infidelity and begins to hit the sauce hard. Her daughter tries to induce a miscarriage and her son is caught in the act of crunching toes and hauled off to juvie. Oh, and her mother despises her and wants her dead. And her ex-husband torments her by driving through the neighborhood bellowing insults into a megaphone. And you thought you had it bad! Poor, poor, poor Francine!
Hope arrives in the form of the dreamy and alliterative Todd Tomorrow (50s heartthrob Tab Hunter), the literal man of her dreams. Will things work out for poor Francine? Cue melodramatic organ music.
Much of the success of Polyester rests on the broad shoulders of the force of nature known as Divine. Monty Python and Kids in the Hall excluded, a man playing a woman is usually fodder for low-brow laughs (for an example see John Travolta attempting to summon an ounce of Divine’s magic under manifold layers of foam and latex in the lame remake of Hairspray) but no one could fill a padded bra and heels like Divine (and we won’t speculate as to what Travolta does in his free time). Divine is utterly believable as a put-upon house-frau teetering on the verge. He owns every frame of the screen and manages to elicit genuine sympathy.
Woe to not have been able to see Polyester in the theatre, as in grand William Castle tradition — presented in Odorama. Audiences were given a scratch ‘n’ sniff card and prompted to partake in sundry aromas which mirrored what was occurring on screen. Scents included “Flatulence”, “Model Airplane Glue”, “Skunk” and “Natural Gas from an Oven.” Great gimmick, but to the film’s credit, it works just fine without the added olfactory stimuli.
Polyester is a film that stinks but in a really good way. It’s fun, irreverent and touching. It’s also a great entry-point for those who want to enter Waters’ filthy world but are not quite ready for decidedly edgier fare such as Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs or Desperate Living. And hey, if grandma is hip enough, she just might enjoy it too.
**** (out of five)