Polyester sees John Waters send up and celebrate suburban life, as well as taking barbed swipes at religious extremists, soap operas, Alcoholics Anonymous and foot fetishists. It also features one of the most memorable cinematic gimmicks since the glory days of über huckster William Castle.
Housewife Francine Fishpaw is watching her life crumble around her. Husband Elmer is having an affair with his secretary, her promiscuous daughter is two months pregnant, her son is a juvenile delinquent, she feels like she is a bad daughter to her own mother, and the only way she can cope with all of this is by hitting the bottle. So far, so standard melodrama. But scratch beneath the surface of that synopsis and a completely different world appears, twisted and rebuilt through the combination of a low budget and a uniquely camp and warped sensibility. Francine is played by mega sized drag queen Divine, her husband is owner of the local X-rated cinema, her daughter is a perpetual motion go-go dancing machine, her son is a foot fetish freak known as the Baltimore Stomper, and her mom is a coke sniffing bully and thief.
The core of the film is a parody of melodramatic soap operas, and many of the plot twists and turns are not much more convoluted than appear in those. As well as mocking the sort of problems that characters in soap operas face, Waters also mocks the simplistic solutions of the genre. The son comes straight out of a few months’ probation, as a clean, sober and law abiding citizen, channelling his foot fetish into his art, while the daughter discovers macramé and becomes a mellow peace loving hippy – all of which is interesting, considering that Waters has long had a second career teaching in prison.
Unlike the subject matter, the cinematography and shot composition is often quite flat, which may be a consequence of the low budget, but it may also be a deliberate choice, as a counterpoint to the outré subject matter. There is also a wonderful eye for detail, such as the importance of the home or the obsession with brand names.
On it’s release Polyester came to cinemas with the added bonus of ODORAMA.
This has roots in the eye catching audience enticing novelties of the likes of William Castle and his penchant for getting the audience to experience to some extent what is going on in the film, as well as a short lived gimmick called Smell-O-Vision. Smell-O-Vision was a system that released smells during the showing of the one film associated with it, a crime flick called Scent of Mystery. With ODORAMA (as explained by a Dr Quackenshaw during an hilarious short prologue) audiences are given a scratch-and-sniff card with ten distinct numbered odours. When the appropriate number is displayed on screen, you scratch the matching one on the card and get a nose full of whatever Francine is inhaling at that time. However it is not just an empty ploy as smells are a recurring theme throughout Polyester, at times driving the plot and the shock revelations, as well as some of the gags.
Even without ODORAMA the film is never dull, with some great throwaway gags (my favourite: the Drive-In cinema showing nothing but art house films, with Champagne and Caviar on sale in the lobby), references to Waters' cultural obsessions such as Patty Hearst and the Manson Family, and a soundtrack by the likes of Debbie Harry and Michael Kamen.
The star of the show is, of course, Divine, who pulls off the rare trick of making an unbelievable character seem, if not totally believable, then largely sympathetic. Along with the star, the supporting roles are played by members of the "Dreamlanders", the troupe of oddballs, misfits and actors used by Waters for as long as he has been making films. Edith Massey holds her own amongst the histrionics as Cuddles Kovinsky, the wealthy, simple minded, eternally cheerful best friend of Francine, while Mink Stole puts in a striking turn as the adulterous secretary. Outside of the regulars, 50’s heartthrob Tab Hunter makes a noteworthy appearance as Todd Tomorrow, the too-good-to-be-true beau who appears in Francine’s life, just when she needs him most.
More than three decades after its release, Polyester, still manages to be hilarious and transgressive, and, like Dr Quackenshaw says, “…some odours may shock you, but […] some things in life just plain stink”