Saturday, April 19, 2014



I had not been paying too much attention to the news lately. If I'm not mentioned, I can't see the point of reading it. However, in the dentist's office this morning, while having my biweekly chemical whitening, I picked up the Los Angeles Times while waiting for the dental hygienist to finish mixing up the peroxide. Skimming the headlines I noticed that there seems to be some sort of new governor's race going on here in California. Apparently it's some sort of anyone who wants to can be the governor thing. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ariana Huffington, Gary Coleman, and Angelyne are in the running already. I leapt out of the chair and immediately called Joseph, my manager, and told him to sign me up. I'm a much bigger name than most of those 'Where are they now?' types and I can see all sorts of ways to rejuvenate my career on the campaign trail.

I then told Madame Rose, my publicist, to send an exclusive press release to every paper in the state announcing my candidacy and how I and my new slogan, "Tap Into Change" were bound to take me all the way to Sacramento, especially given the lack of viable competition. She's having some festive yard signs printed up, suitable for sticking in freeway medians, and I'll be more than willing to show up for debates and the like. The only one of my show biz compadres I feel I have to worry about is Ah-nuld who had something of a hit film this past month. However, my credentials for the governorship are every bit as good as his and I have a lot more style and flair, and he doesn't dance.

To start revving myself up for campaign mode, I decided to watch a film in which popularity contests and elections play a prominent part. Searching through the DVD 'to view' pile, I stumbled upon John Waters' 1988 film, Hairspray with Ricki Lake and Divine and thought it might just fill the bill. I popped it into the machine for a look, kicked off my new Manolo Blahniks and settled in for several hours of good natured fun. After all, any film in which the entire cast does the Madison is my kind of movie.

Hairspray takes place in John Waters' beloved Baltimore during the early 1960s. The Kennedy era is in full swing, with a new doo-wop dance craze every week. The high school kids all race home to tune into the local version of American Bandstand, 'The Corny Collins Show' where teens twist and shout and do the Pony and the Mashed Potato. Young Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake in her first film)is a faithful follower of Corny and his gang and she's full of life, despite her overly zaftig figure. Over the objections of her mother (Divine) and father (Jerry Stiller), she triumphs in her audition to join the teen dance crew and becomes a local celebrity and symbol of the successful outcast, dancing her heart out despite her weight. She starts to match reigning teen queen Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) in popularity and threatens to take the coveted Miss Auto Show crown from her to the chagrin of her image conscious parents (Deborah Harry and Sonny Bono). She even manages to steal the affections of Linc, Amber's beau (Michael St. Gerard).

This is all typical Waters territory, but the film becomes more meaningful as it takes on race relations in the pre-Civil Rights area. Baltimore was very much a segregated Southern City during that period and 'The Corny Collins Show', based on a real program, 'The Buddy Deane Show', was no exception - white folks only except on 'Negro Day', the last Thursday of the month. Tracy, with her outsider status, feels these slights keenly and starts to agitate for integration, especially after her best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) falls for a young black man (Clayton Prince), the son of local disc jockey Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown in the part that started her trip back from obscurity.) Soon there are race riots, political crises and, in a joyous finale, everyone dances together.

The movie is a musical, but very much in the late century 'We all know we're singing and dancing' mode. The musical numbers are dance competitions and tapings of the show. It contains a couple of original songs, pastiche of early 60s doo-wop sounds, but most of the score are the songs of the period when there was a new big thing every couple of weeks. The Phil Spector/Carole King beat keeps things light and bubbly. Several years ago, the material was taken and reworked by composer Marc Shaiman into a Broadway show with a full pastiche score in more traditional format. Waters didn't really set out to make a musical (as he did with his later film Cry Baby) but it works as one.

This was Waters' first film to really hit with a mainstream audience. It used his usual ironic sensibility, coupled with his sense of the absurd and the usual gross jokes but was leavened this time with a sweetness and light touch that made the material accessible to a larger audience. His usual unusual casting was in full force. Divine and Mink Stole, from his early days, both have prominent parts, and all sorts of faces from Sonny Bono to Pia Zadora to Ric Ocasek show up in cameos. Where the film comes together, however, is in the central mother/daughter relationship. It doesn't matter that mom is being played by Divine, a 350 pound drag queen, there's something very real about Edna's exasperation with Tracy and pride at her success. Ricki Lake, long before the weight loss and the talk show, has such a joie de vivre in her role that you can't help but root for her, even when her peroxided hairdo looks like a dead skunk doing a handstand on her scalp.

The whole enterprise is helped along by Vincent Peranio's candy colored sets and art design, which make Baltimore look like a dreamscape of a city, and by Van Smith's witty costumes, especially for the finale when Miss Auto Show is finally crowned. The film is a little feast for eyes and ears and, despite the occasional pimple popping, or rat interrupting a romantic clinch, definitely a feel good film.

Piled high bouffants. Floral bodices. Strong Madison lines. Prudence Pingleton nervous breakdown. Record store hop. Broken kneecaps. Gratuitous motion sickness. Hair detention. Hair ironing. Gratuitous dodge ball. Exploding wig.

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