From my present vantage point halfway down the road to geezerdom, the Biograph Theater’s 1973 midnight premiere of writer-director John Waters’ Pink Flamingos remains one of my most indelible moviegoing experiences. Ticket buyers, aware of the film’s notorious underground reputation, arrived chemically enhanced for the occasion. A cloud of cannabis smoke fogged the screen, on which nearly every imaginable sexual and scatological taboo was gleefully shattered. Divine’s now-legendary climactic enormity appalled even the stoned audience. Like survivors of a military atrocity, we staggered from the theater and fanned out to our cars, the night air shattered by feigned howls of projectile vomiting.
Nearly a quarter-century later, at 10:30 a.m. in the Motion Picture Association of America’s small, plush screening room, I joined a half-dozen other reviewers to watch the revival print of Pink Flamingos. The movie was the same, but the world had changed. No Vietnam war, no Watergate scandal, no mass demonstrations, no sexual revolution, no grass in the theater. Only the collective amnesia, or denial, that the tumultuous era that produced such a film had ever existed. Viewed in today’s benumbed climate, Waters’ riotous gross-fest seemed like a scabrous artifact that had somehow insinuated itself into a time capsule, and was now being unearthed, to the disgust and horror of onlookers.
In 1972, the year Pink Flamingos was completed and first shown in Waters’ native Baltimore, moviegoers still knew the difference between art and trash. Hollywood studios enjoyed critical and commercial success with The Godfather, Deliverance, and Cabaret. Audiences supported imports by Bergman, Bertolucci, Buñuel, Fassbinder, Godard, Malle, Ray, Rohmer, and Truffaut. In this heady cinematic context, Waters’ spitball in the eye of decency had the impact of a turd canapé on a silver hors d’oeuvre tray. Today, with impersonal, high-concept junk like Independence Day and Twister setting box-office records, and Ed Wood retrospectives presented by film societies, Pink Flamingos has taken on an aura of artistic integrity. Not only because it is self-consciously rubbishythe story of two perverted families vying for recognition as “the filthiest people alive”but because Waters is a true auteur, possessed of an idiosyncratic, albeit emetic, vision.
Shot on a frayed shoestring budget in the cold winter of 1971-72 with a cast composed of the filmmaker’s cronies, Pink Flamingos stars the inimitable Divine as the matriarch of a trailer-trash collective that includes her obese, retarded, egg-obsessed mother Edie (Edith Massey), voyeuristic, bleach-blond companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), and sex-driven, exhibitionist son, Crackers (Danny Mills). Their jealous, bitter rivals for the mantle of filthdom are Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), who kidnap female hitchhikers and lock them in a basement dungeon where they are impregnated by a gay butler, Channing (Channing Wilroy). (The resultant foundlings are sold to lesbian couples, and the profits used to fund porno shops and elementary-school heroin rings.) The Marbles hire a spy, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), to infiltrate Divine’s rural compound, and send the police to bust her lascivious birthday party. In retaliation, Divine and Crackers put a curse on the Marbles’ row house, kidnap the couple, try them in a kangaroo court, and execute them. In a final repulsive gesture, Divine, as character and performer, achieves immortality as the goddess of filth.
This inane plot serves as a vehicle for the graphic presentation of a series of outragesrape, bestiality, incest, castration, vomiting, sphincter gymnastics, pornography, transsexual flashing, and coprophagy. Unlike Waters’ bigger-budgeted, celebrity-studded recent efforts, Pink Flamingos pulls no punches. With very few exceptions, these trespasses are not faked, leaving viewers in breathless admiration of the devotion and dementia of the cast. Some sequences go beyond obscenity to achieve a kind of gutter surrealism. A shot of Divine, who has stolen a raw sirloin steak from a butcher and hidden it in her ample panties, strutting down the street while “The Girl Can’t Help It” blares on the soundtrack, inhabits the realm of dreams, where grotesque juxtapositions become poetry. And Edie’s ardent dialogues with her beloved Egg Man (Paul Swift) swell in eloquence to absurd arias of adoration: a grungy, yolk-smeared Romeo and Juliet vowing eternal love through the restraining bars of a playpen.
Still, after confirming that Pink Flamingos remains a singular experience, I can’t avoid acknowledging that, without the enhancement of pot and the rebelliousness of youth, most of the movie is painful to endure. The actingthis is a very generous application of the termlargely consists of talentless people screaming at each other in Bawlmer accents. (Even Divine, who reached her expressive, Elizabeth Taylorlike apotheosis as the beleaguered Francine Fishpaw in Polyester, gives a rather rudimentary performance, despite her overwhelming physical presence.) Although aesthetically apposite, the murky color and shaky, home-movie camerawork are eyesores, and at 107 minutes, the picture is at least 40 minutes too long to sustain its silly, raunchy premise.
For the current reissue, Waters has appended a coda in which he smarmily introduces previously unseen footage cut from the original version. By tacking on these mediocre snippets instead of concluding with Divine’s doggedly rebarbative envoi, Waters tames, even castrates, his own bowelchild. Like Howard Stern’s shameless, self-deifying sellout in Private Parts, Waters’ emasculation of Pink Flamingos reveals the sorry truth that what motivated his youthful transgression was merely an outcast’s hunger to be accepted and admired. It takes more talent, however, than Waters and Stern possess to sculpt turds into halos. How could they have failed to comprehend that we valued them because they were shitheads?
Dying in 1988, Divine was spared the indignity of having to conform to ’90s neo-Puritanism. Although luckier in life, Bette Midler hasn’t adapted very easily to our bluenose era. In the late ’60s and ’70s, both mock divinities impersonated larger-than-life trollops, and were initially embraced by gay audiences, and only subsequently by a broader public. A fixture of Waters’ movies, Divine only appeared in the works of a few other independent filmmakers and performed at gay discos. After launching her career at Manhattan’s Continental Baths, the Divine Miss M. soared to mainstream celebrity in concert engagements, then achieved Hollywood stardom playing a thinly disguised Janis Joplin in The Rose, an over-the-top performance that would not have been out of place in a Waters movie.
In a late-’80s quest for respectability, Midler made the mistake of signing a pact with Disney and starring in a series of jerry-built, sentimental vehicles that defanged her. Gone was the sassy, self-parodying strumpet who told filthy Sophie Tucker and taco jokes, replaced by the teary-eyed simp of Beaches and Stella. (Madonna is currently headed down a similar primrose path. With her upmarket role in Evita and Great Lady appearance at the Academy Awards, she seems to be auditioning to become this generation’s Julie Andrews.) Written off by all but die-hard fans, Midler makes something of a return to form in Carl Reiner’s That Old Feeling, a lively, good-natured comedy with zingy dialogue by writer-producer Leslie Dixon, who previously scripted Outrageous Fortune and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Reiner and his star have been flogging their film on talk shows, congratulating themselves for risking a project featuring middle-aged protagonists at a time when Hollywood is catering almost exclusively to adolescents, instead of admitting their actual agenda: jump-starting their flagging careers. I regarded attending That Old Feeling strictly as a professional obligation, but to my surprise found myself laughing aloud at a comedy that is more entertaining and genuinely romantic than contrived, mirthless yuppie fare like When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle.
Midler plays Lilly, a flamboyant movie star whose daughter Molly (Paula Marshall, a pretty ingénue who can act) is engaged to Keith (Jamie Denton), a patrician, strait-laced Republican political hopeful. At their wedding, Lilly collides with her ex-husband, crime writer Dan (Dennis Farina). Both have remarriedLilly to wimpy, psychobabbling pop shrink Alan (David Rasche), and Dan to Rowena (Gail O’Grady), a social-climbing, surgically preserved interior decorator. Following an acrimonious clash at the wedding reception, Lilly and Dan inexplicably find themselves screwing in a sports car, caught in the grip of an irresistibly resurrected passion. Abandoning their mates, they escape to Manhattan, pursued by an incensed Molly, who enlists the aid of Joey (Danny Nucci), an unshakable tabloid paparazzo. Considerable bed-hopping and self-awakening ensue before the festive fadeout.
Although formulaic and predictable in design, That Old Feeling is directed with verve by Reiner, an uneven filmmaker whose stinkers (Sibling Rivalry, Summer School) are counterbalanced by brisk, underrated comedies including All of Me and the uproarious The Man With Two Brains. Reiner’s sure hand at timing dialogue and sight gags (including a sidesplitter involving a Reddi Whip can) revivifies Midler, who responds with her sauciest, most endearing performance in years. (Her only limp moment comes during a gratuitous song sequence; she sings “Somewhere Along the Way” to Farina at one of their erstwhile Gotham haunts. In addition to grinding the narrative to a halt, the scene exposes Midler’s lackluster voice and maladroit phrasing, failings underlined by the elegant musicianship of her soundtrack piano accompanist, jazz great Tommy Flanagan.) Reiner inspires an ensemble of unfamiliar players to support Midler effectively, and keeps the movie sailing along until the final half-hour, when its pace begins to sag.
It’s unlikely That Old Feeling will do much to reverse Midler’s and Reiner’s fortunes. The picture’s promotional campaign makes it appear wheezy and passé, and reviewers have been less than enthusiastic. But its endorsement of impulsive hedonism and contempt for decorumakin to Waters’ assault on family values, sans blowjobs and excrementwon me over, along with the middle-aged matinee audience around me that vigorously applauded the closing credits.CP