Divine Intervention

Polyester and the Death of Melodrama

New Line Cinema

Watching a John Waters movie is like imagining what would happen if you let your worst, most NC-17 intrusive thoughts win. Across his eclectic career as a madman with a movie camera, sometimes novelist, and occasional stand-up showman, Waters has never not been willing to go there—there, of course, being to the sidewalk to eat a steaming dog turd baking sunny-side up, or non-consensually beneath the girth of a monstrous lobster the size of an eight-wheeler. I imagine that to peek inside the window leading into Waters’ brain would result in a vomit-flecked hangover, something both regrettable and—perhaps later on—a memory to look fondly back at once metabolism has become a rearview fixture. He’s perhaps the culture’s last true gay villain (sorry, Che Diaz) in the most honorable sense, a curator of all things depraved and filthy and legendary. His cheapest, punkiest excursions leave the best Ryan Murphy project looking evangelical at best. The backwoods worlds he creates carry the distinct aura of an asshole pre-douche; a used needle hidden in the rosy, piss-crusted carpet. 

Of course, the secret ingredient to all of this filmic hysteria—a crazed and carnal homosexual extravaganza if there ever was one—is the drag icon Divine, a natural disaster of a performer, with makeup as loud as a crowded room full of Amber Alerts. It’s fitting, then, that the most unorthodox creation this gruesome twosome unleashed upon the world was also their softest, an attempt at real mainstream filmmaking, whatever the fuck that means.

Polyester, released in 1981, is Waters’ bombastic attempt at melodrama, relying on Sirk-style histrionics and neon-hued daydreams. Confined within the cotton-candy wallpapers of Polyester’s American suburbia, you’ll find no shortage of tears—so many tears—alongside abortions, anti-porn protestors, infidelity, suicide, dog suicide, murder, mental breakdowns, and a partridge in a pear tree. And, just to be a completist, there’s also an iconic masculine centerfold superimposed tenderly into the proceedings, played by Gays-for-Trump actor Tab Hunter (RIP) doing his best Rock Hudson impersonation (and failing gloriously). But Divine remains, as ever, the film’s crown jewel, chewing the genre’s excessive and syrupy dressings like a feeding shark rocketing towards a discarded tampon bobbing in the ocean’s skin.

I’ll be blunt. As far as genres go, melodrama is my country music. I’m naturally averse to its basic emotional manipulations on account of my unwillingness to indulge in the sorrows of matrimony; there are only so many cheating husbands I can tolerate before I start to imagine taping the heterosexual-industrial complex to a nuclear test site and watching all its pieces blast apart. I hate the way men chop wood out back to showcase their inner turmoil. I hate the way a housewife spreads mayonnaise on a piece of white bread as a means to reveal that she’s unsatisfied with her life, her marriage. I hate the little whisperings done by straight people on film, their pathetic fussing over community standards, and their chickening will-they, won’t-they endings that climax with a kiss. I hate how everyone gazes off into the distance as a way to articulate hurt or grief. What the fuck are you staring at?! Just say something!

Anyway. What I love about Polyester is how loud it is, and how it bans subtext—and subtlety—from entering into melodrama’s homeowner’s association. Throughout its runtime, Divine, playing a character named Francine Fishpaw, howls, crawls, and sobs her way through a loveless marriage, then masturbates in an empty bed hued by a multi-colored lighting set-up ripped straight from a Spencer’s. She is The Housewife, a groveling, sex-starved, buttoned-up cannon of heart-on-the-sleeve begging and yearning, and her husband Elmer, played by David Samson, is The Husband—your standard blowhard patriarch with an adult movie business and a secretarial side piece. The story is as old as time: The Husband hates The Housewife with every fiber of his being, to the point where “delegitimize heterosexual marriage” nearly becomes a sound political platform. But devoted as they are to the contract of heterosexuality, Elmer and Francine have two children—Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington), the shrillest daughter manifested from the Seventh Circle of Hell, and Dexter (Ken King), a little freak who enjoys crushing the feet of random ladies at the grocery store and sniffing glue. 

On the surface, the basics of the plot read like any old melodrama. Francine discovers that her husband is cheating, asks for a divorce, and spirals into alcoholism at the same time as her children either get arrested or try to have an abortion after a shitty boyfriend skips offscreen. When all seems lost, a hunk named Todd Tomorrow (Hunter) appears to sweep Francine off her feet and thrusts (inside) her into a new chapter of her life. Fin

Except, not really. In Waters’ hands, the film skewers the melodrama’s achy-breaky conventions by ramping them up to 11 on the what-the-fuck meter, effectively killing off more than half of Francine’s family—including the family dog, who inexplicably hangs himself despite having no thumbs—in the process. Never one for mystery, every line of dialogue written by Waters reveals exactly what any character is thinking at any given time, and is delivered with such volume and flatness as to seem hallucinatory, like trying to converse with a friend on edibles inside a jet plane. Even the romantic hunk whom Francine would otherwise win at the end is a sack of rotted flesh. Yes, even Todd, the rippling Playgirl model who’s supposed to save Francine from a life of dour domesticity, turns out to be a crook hellbent on embezzling her divorce settlement. And because Waters can’t help himself, Todd also wants to sex-traffic her children to boot. At every turn, the melodrama becomes too much, even for itself. And it’s that too-muchness that propels Polyester beyond the genre’s trappings—its obsession with clean surfaces, quiet tears, and yearning, borderline inarticulate propositions. Polyester finds itself when it goes off the rails. 

And in that spirit of being overstuffed and psychotic, Polyester came equipped (in theaters and also with the recently released Criterion edition) with a side gimmick called Odorama, a scratch-n-sniff card that the viewer was/is meant to use when prompted by a number on the screen. Taking a cue from notorious B-movie director William Castle, who repeatedly relied on gimmick items to promote his movies, Waters’ Odorama card adds another dimension to Polyester’s seven-layer dip of depravity. The card looks like a lotto ticket dipped in Pepto-Bismol, another garish item to complement the garishness of Francine’s home décor. The scents themselves are schoolyard-silly and dangerously potent. For example, one is meant to conjure the fuming ass spray of a skunk, and accomplishes this with gusto. With the scent cues in hand, the viewer is drawn further into Francine’s domestic hell. Not only does the world treat Francine like shit, but it smells like it, too. This added component of putridity brings an unorthodox pathos to the onscreen proceedings. Whether it’s a pair of old shoes or a juicy fart, Francine’s journey from lowly and forgotten housewife to full-blown Heroine can be traced through these odors. As the film plods along, the smells become more palatable until finally we’re left with the somewhat pleasant smell of air freshener, a welcome pivot signaling new life for Francine. New life and new hope. 

One wonders how Polyester would fare with the youth of today (at 27, I’m a queer elder). The anti-porn protestors that Waters uses as a punching bag might’ve felt like too easy a target, even back in 1981, and yet in 2022, the Twitter timeline is riddled with film takes so holy and righteous, it sometimes feels like the only place that one will be able to watch a movie in the future is in the packed wooden pews of a cathedral. Imagine, if you will, Divine’s boisterous presence surrounded on both sides by stained glass saints and grieving mothers. It’s almost like a scene that Waters would put in one of his movies. While the conventional melodramatic protagonist might take a moment to give a shit about what her neighbor thinks of her falling for the vague and inexplicable hunk on her doorstep, Waters wastes no time in showing us the carnal heat of desire between Todd and Francine (even though Todd is, for lack of a better word, an asshole). And it’s important that Francine fucks. It’s important that we see her in bed, mid-heat, giving herself the pleasure she deserves. In giving Francine sexual agency, Waters grants The Housewife a place beyond domestic duty. She’s a sexual force of nature unwilling to take the patriarchal nonsense that The Husband subjects her to. She becomes, in her own way, the central character in her narrative—not some left-behind token used by men to get what they want, but a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. At the end of the film, Francine remains standing, with her children somehow still alive, as a single woman with her best friend in tow (played by the always fantastic Edith Massey), living something close to her best life. Call me crazy, but I don’t think there’s a holier message than that.