John Waters dropped into IFC Center over the weekend to introduce a screening of his 1974 cult favorite Female Trouble, newly restored with a 4K digital transfer. The follow-up to Pink Flamingos once again starred legendary drag act Divine, this time as Dawn Davenport, the beauty-obsessed leader of a girl gang who takes her lust for fame even beyond Kardashian levels (as in, chopping off her caged aunt-in-law’s hand in the name of art).
At the time of its release, the movie didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor, which had been a midnight phenomenon. “This movie was a flop when it came out,” Waters told the packed theater on Friday, later adding, “For a long time it was thought of as Pink Flamingos‘ weak sister.” Now, of course, it’s a cult classic, and Criterion Collection has just put out a new edition loaded with extras. Here’s what we learned from the Pope of Trash during his Q&A at IFC, where Female Trouble will run alongside Hairspray through Aug. 2.
1. No children were harmed in the making of this film. Yes, even the one that was chained to her bed.
“All the kids in my movies turned out fine, they all turned out fine. The one in Female Trouble where Divine gives birth and bites the [umbilical] cord… that little baby is now 50 years old. Ramsey McClean, he comes to my Christmas party and he’s fine. I thank him for being in my early films. Also, the little girl that I locked in a refrigerator while she was crying for a second take in Desperate Living, she’s fine too. Little Taffy [Dawn Davenport’s daughter, who is neglected and abused throughout Female Trouble and eventually becomes a Hare Krishna] is fine, they all turned out fine.”
2. There’s a story behind the scene where a young Dawn Davenport pushes her mom into a Christmas tree because she didn’t get the cha cha heels she wanted.
“When I was young my grandmother’s Christmas tree fell over on her. I remember the handyman screaming, the maid crying, and me being, ‘Is my present hurt?’ She wasn’t injured but I was obsessed by it… And my grandmother even thought it was funny that it had become part of my repertoire.”
3. The line “These aren’t cha cha heels!” continues to be relevant.
“All drag queens get it wrong whenever they have drag queen contests about this movie. Cha cha heels are short, squat heels, they’re not spiked heels.”
4. Edith Massey’s line “the world of heterosexual[s] is a sick and twisted life” was market testing.
“I wanted to see how many gay people were in the audience. Completely, you can tell; still people applaud.”
5. He watched Ingmar Bergman (sometimes on acid) for exactly the reason you’d think.
“I loved Ingmar Bergman, because he had the first puke scene.”
6. But there are some scenes not even John Waters can watch.
“I wanted [Divine] to puke for real in that scene where she was Earl [the father, played by Glenn Milstead outside of drag]. I fed her ipecac, and there’s many takes of her going [puking noises], trying to puke, and Mink [Stole] is doing her lines. I can’t even watch it today. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
7. Glenn Milstead, who dressed in drag to become Divine, “was not trans anything.”
“Divine in high school was an overweight nerd that got beat up every day for doing nothing. He was just quiet. And the teachers were horrible to him too. The police had to take him home for no reason. So later, I think I used that anger that he had in him. He was nothing like the character of Divine in my early movies; he was a kind, gentle man, actually, that was a pothead that liked to eat… Divine at first didn’t get why do people like this until we went to San Francisco and he realized he could make a living from this and everything. But then he got weary of being with me, too, because people couldn’t get over the whole eating shit thing [i.e. the scene in Pink Flamingos in which he eats fresh dog poop]. He got so sick of talking about that and he wanted to get away from me and do things without me… Divine was not trans anything. He had no desire to be a woman, he wanted to be a conqueror worm, he wanted to be a monster. And we thought him up to scare hippies.
8. John Waters stopped doing movies because movies started being too much like John Waters.
“Exploitation is hard. I think the last great exploitation movie was Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I have a friend who said, ‘That was the most irresponsible movie I ever saw.’ I said, it wasn’t that good.’ Exploitation was when I did everything the Hollywood studios could not or would not do, which is gore and sexuality. They all have that now, so there isn’t anything left… That’s why I stopped, because Hollywood makes $100-million gross-out comedies that aren’t funny. Some are, I mean The Hangover was, but then there were 50 ones that weren’t.”
9. When Polyester gets a 4K restoration next year, he wants an updated Odorama card to be included.
“I want to add the 11th Odorama smell, which is wig odor, the smell of wig and sweat.”
10. Roseanne Barr was considered for the titular murderous mom in Serial Mom.
“She was a complete liberal then. I don’t know. You just can’t watch the internet too much. I think if anyone watches the internet too much they’re ISIS or something. I don’t know.”