Whether viewed as the last of John Waters’ deliberately ragged early films or the first of his movies to encroach on something like the mainstream, Polyster (1981) is clearly a transitional work, and it suffers a bit from that fact. It’s both a little too polished to feel authentically crude and too crude a work to be one of Waters’ slicker films. It’s the last of Waters’ movies to score laughs from the inept performances of nonactors who can barely remember their lines, let alone deliver them with any dramatic flair, and that sits a bit awkwardly with the shrewder playing of Tab Hunter and the increasingly accomplished acting of Divine. But it does work on its own transitional terms—not the least of which is the metamorphosis of Divine from purely outrageous caricature to outrageous character. Playing the character of Francine Fishpaw in this satire of the nouveau-riche lifestyle, Divine manages to be both funny and strangely believable as the long-suffering wife of faithless porn-theater owner Elmer Fishpaw (David Samson) and equally long-suffering mother of trampy daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) and disturbed son Dexter (Ken King).
Waters’ concept is to create a low-rent version of a Douglas Sirk 1950s soaper, with Divine being dragged through all the paces that might have been the lot of a glossy star of the era—Lana Turner or Lauren Bacall, for example. The difference—aside from the openly trashy tone (Sirk’s films were trashy, too, but not as upfront about it)—is that no Sirk star ever had quite this many travails in one movie. Divine copes with not merely the faithless husband and disturbed children, but also alcoholism, a conniving mother and a duplicitous boyfriend (Tab Hunter)—not to mention the social stigma of living a life funded by a porn theater. The comic invention is high—ranging from Jean Hill (veteran of Desperate Living) hijacking a bus to pay back an insult, to Dexter Fishpaw terrorizing the town as the “Baltimore Foot Stomper,” to an upscale drive-in theater that shows Marguerite Duras movies, to Waters fave Edith Massey as a decidedly over-the-hill, newly wealthy debutante. It’s also a film enriched by how much you know about Waters and his movies. Originally, Polyester was topped off by a William Castle-like gimmick, “Odorama,” which allowed (via a scratch-and-sniff card) the viewer to “enjoy” the smells of the movie.