Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

HAIRSPRAY (1988)

Mother and Daughter: Divine and Ricki Lake
HAIRSPRAY (1988). Writer/director: John Waters.

"She's more beautiful than Elizabeth Taylor!"

In the sixties chubby teen and "hair hopper" Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) wants to go on the Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) dance show in Baltimore and strut her stuff, and she winds up not only a favorite of the show but a member of the council. Her mother, Edna (Divine), is thrilled for her daughter, but Tracy earns the enmity of former favorite Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick/Vitamin C) and her mother, Velma (Deborah Harry of Wiseguy). Tracy is appalled at the show's refusal to admit black teens accept on "Negro Day" and fights for integration even as her friend, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers), falls in love with Seaweed (Clayton Prince), a black youth, infuriating her neurotic mother Prudence (Joann Havrilla). Will Tracy and her friends succeed in bringing integration to the Corny Collins Show and will it be Tracy or Amber who will be crowned Miss Auto Show of 1963? I have to say that I think most of the over-rated John Waters' oeuvre is fairly worthless, but Hairspray is the one film of his that I like (and maybe Polyester). Although the comedy is broad, it gets across the message without beating you on the head with it, and there are times when this is very, very funny. Ricki Lake is outstanding and gets fine support from the one-of-a-kind Divine, who also plays (out of drag) the mean, racist station manager, Arvin Hodgepile. Outfitted with a wild hairdo, Harry is also fun as Velma, although poor Sonny Bono is much less effective. Powers is okay as the forever lollipop-sucking Penny, but Havilla overacts terribly as her mother (which is saying a lot in this movie). Ruth Ford as Seaweed's mother [a black activist in a straight blond wig?] and Mink Stole as Corny's assistant similarly do not impress, but there are nice performances from many of the teens, such as Michael St. Gerard, as Tracy's unexpected love interest, and both Thompson and Fitzpatrick are very good. Oddly Jerry Stiller as Tracy's father also makes little impression. Pia Zadora, of all people, is good in a cameo as a drug-using beatnik. There are some wonderful classic tunes on the soundtrack, as well as the nifty new number "Do the Roach!" as well as some excellent dancing that is well-choreographed and well-edited. One could argue that the scene with the black people dancing in a much, much sexier way than the whites borders on stereotyping, but it's effective in its way. The film has many interesting touches, such as when someone sings a song on the show which is taken up by a poor drunk black on the street outside who's voice is just as good but who presumably never got the breaks. One of my favorite moments is when Edna says her daughter is "all ratted up like a teenage Jezebel" but pronounces it jazzabel. This is far superior to the John Travolta remake.

Verdict: Charming, loopy, played and done with just the right touch. ***.

2 comments:

angelman66 said...

Hi William - I agree that this is John Waters' best, because it is charming and heartwarming, with great performances and music. I also like Serial Mom a lot, and Polyester. But the early exploitation films, with all their shock value, are what got him noticed...I'll never forget the first time I ever saw Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble...I couldn't believe what I was seeing!

William said...

You're right about that. They were so low-budget too. Haven't seen those in decades. Divine grew as a performer -- literally as well as figuratively!