(1981) Written and directed by John Waters; Starring: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, David Samson and Mink Stole; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“If Polyester is suburban hell, then I don’t think… I think people could be happy in suburbia. I’m not saying that they can’t be… I could never be. If there was a John Waters utopia, it would probably be a great house, with great rugs, next door to a prison.”
– John Waters (from 1993 Criterion commentary)
John Waters once remarked that when he was a kid, he wanted to sit in William Castle’s lap for Christmas. While it’s doubtful he ever got his original wish, Waters followed in the footsteps of his idol, with an affectionate tribute to Mr. Castle’s famous gimmicks, Polyester. Presented in “Odorama,” * Polyester combined two seemingly disparate things: Waters’ anarchic, anti-establishment comedy and Castle’s flair for showmanship. Shot in 35 mm (compared to 16 mm for his earlier efforts) with a $300,000 budget, it was his biggest production to date. As a film designated for mainstream cinemas, as opposed to the midnight movie circuit, it heralded a new era for the filmmaker.
* Fun Fact #1: Audiences were introduced (or assaulted) to a smell-related gimmick, years earlier, with Scent of Mystery (1960), presented in “Smell-O-Vision,” and starring Peter Lorre, Denholm Elliott and Diana Dors. Oddly enough, this wasn’t a Castle film.
For the benefit of those who didn’t attend an original theatrical screening of the film (including yours truly), we have the next best thing with the Criterion Blu-ray (there’s also a DVD available), which includes an Odorama* card. The card replicates its theatrical counterpart, complete with numbered scratch and sniff sections that correspond to flashing numbers on the screen, so everyone can play along at home. Considering the source, it should be no surprise that not everything smells like roses (although that’s one of the scents). Instead, expect more along the lines of “fart” and “smelly tennis shoes” (I won’t divulge which numbers on the card correspond to what).**
* Fun Fact #2: According to Waters, per legal requirements, the film company had to confirm that the original scratch-n-sniff cards, manufactured by 3M, would be non-toxic in the event that someone tried to eat them.
** Fun Fact #3: For the creation of the Odorama cards, the 3M company used some smells off the shelf from their library (including “rose” and “skunk”), while they had to get creative with a combination of scents, to get the desired effect for some of the more infamous odors.
Divine, who played some truly despicable characters in Waters’ earlier films, gets a chance to win our sympathies as beleaguered suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw, gifted with exceptional olfactory abilities (lucky us, we get to smell what she smells), but seemingly cursed with everything else. Francine laments, “I look into my future, and all I see is a long, dark highway filled with endless toll booths and no exits.” Everything seems to go wrong in her nuclear family turned upside down, starting with her loutish husband Elmer (David Samson), who operates a local porn theater, berates her on a daily basis, and cheats on her with his girlfriend (Mink Stole). Her son Dexter (Ken King) has a foot fetish and a penchant for serial foot stomping, while pregnant daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) hangs out with a disreputable crowd – notably, her boyfriend Bo-Bo (played by ex-Dead Boy, Stiv Bators). Just when it looks like things can’t get bleaker, even the family dog decides to end it all. The one bright spot in Francine’s life is her well-to-do friend Cuddles (Edith Massey), * who stands by her when things are at their worst. It’s when things are at their worst that Francine finds love in an unexpected place, from slick-talking, Corvette-driving conman Todd Tomorrow, played by ‘50s/’60s heartthrob Tab Hunter (who also sings the title song, with Blondie’s Debbie Harry as backup).
* Fun Fact #4: Waters noted that Massey (a Baltimore fixture and regular in his films since 1970’s Multiple Maniacs) had trouble remembering her lines and pronouncing some of the dialogue, resulting in multiple takes.
Waters has a knack for turning the microscope on modern society, filtered through his gleefully distorted lens. Polyester sets its sights on suburbia and what he considered “nouveau riche bad taste,” with its atrocious fashions, garish color schemes and questionable trends (witness Waters regular Mink Stole in corn rows – a mocking call-back to Bo Derek’s 10 look). Casting Edith Massey against type, as a wealthy socialite, is another inspired choice. In a film packed with gags, one of the funniest (and more elaborate) involves a highbrow drive-in theater that shows obscure French arthouse film (come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea). The topper is a romantic montage to end all romantic montages, with Francine and Todd cavorting in a field to the strains of a love song crooned by Bill Murray (it’s about as surreal as you could imagine).
* Not-So-Fun-Fact: In one scene where an enraged gospel singer bites into a car tire, actress Jean Hill became a bit too involved in her role, which resulted in losing her front teeth.
Polyester successfully heralds the transition between John Waters’ earlier, demonstratively less-commercial efforts (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble) and his more people-pleasing endeavors (Hairspray, Serial Mom). The common denominator that runs through all his work, however, is a fondness for pushing buttons and a disdain for conformity. The most shocking thing about Polyester might be that Waters ultimately has an (Gasp!) uplifting message for us, with a soft spot for the underdogs, the downtrodden and misunderstood. Amidst the bad smells and depictions of antisocial behavior, we’re encouraged to learn to respect others’ differences, and just as importantly, value ourselves. Mr. Waters gently nudges us in the ribs, reminds us that going to the movies engages all our senses (and all that implies). William Castle (who passed away in 1977) never lived to see Waters’ film, but I’m sure he would have been touched to see that good showmanship (albeit in the interest of bad taste) never died.