Hairspray is not merely, as John Waters told Xpress in an interview last week, the “most devious” film he ever made, it’s probably the most devious film anyone has ever made. Consider when it was made: 1988. We’d had eight years of Ronald Reagan and the most repressive decade since the ‘50s (imagine Huey Lewis’ 1986 “Hip to Be Square” being a hit in the 1960s). Here comes Waters—off the screen since Polyester in 1981—looking for all the world like he was ready to capitulate by turning out a PG-rated movie that traded in nostalgia for the last gasp of the 1950s and the pre-British Invasion ‘60s. And that’s what America—caught up in the movie’s bouncy period soundtrack and essentially upbeat spirit—saw.
What they didn’t bother thinking about was that they’d been sold a 300-pound transvestite, Divine, as a loving, supportive Baltimore housewife, and a story that was as much about the downside—segregation, conformity, small-mindedness—of its era as it was nostalgic for the silly music and the supposedly simple lifestyle. For that matter, did anyone stop to realize that its “pleasantly plump” heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), was an outspoken young woman who didn’t mince words, wasn’t traditionally pretty, and couldn’t see anything wrong with integration or even racially mixed marriages? And what of the fact that the villains of the piece were upscale, nouveau-riche snobs interested in sticking to a reactionary status quo for personal gain—the perfect bad guys for the new “me generation”? What Waters did was hit a subversive bull’s-eye—with a large part of the world not noticing what they were eating up. That’s a kind of genius in itself. But the film is close to genius in other ways.
It’s Waters in full-flower as a filmmaker, at his sharpest and funniest, with his tale of the overweight Tracy, who becomes a freak hit on a local dance show and sets out to change the world. More, Hairspray offered us the perfect swan song for Waters’ most iconic star, Divine, who died not long after the film’s release. One of the great films of the ‘80s and as close to perfect as Waters has gotten.