THE TRANSGRESSIVE 1974 FILM FEMALE TROUBLE IS OFFICIALLY A CLASSIC. In certain circles, it always was, but a new 4K digital restoration from Criterion classics, with bonus footage, puts a garish cherry on top. John Waters was 25 when he wrote, produced and shot the film, for $25,000, on the streets of his beloved Baltimore. It was the second in his Trash Trilogy (between 1972’s Pink Flamingos and 1977’s Desperate Living) and starred the Dreamlanders, his regular troupe of eccentrics, led by Waters’s childhood friend and muse, Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine (who died too soon, in 1988). Trouble begins with Divine’s Dawn Davenport shoving her mother into a Christmas tree when she doesn’t get black cha-cha heels. All manner of crime and hilarious grotesquerie ensues, ending with Dawn executed in the electric chair. Waters, who would go on to direct nine more films, including Hairspray (1988), spoke to Newsweek about how time has treated his demented baby. “It’s funny. Female Trouble wasn’t a hit when it came out,” he says. “It was thought of as Pink Flamingos’s poor stepsister.”
When you watch Female Trouble now, what is your impression?
Kind of what my father used to say: “What were you thinking?” [Laughs.]
The film is a treasure trove of quotable lines. Do you have a favorite?
When Dawn says to her daughter Taffy, “A team of doctors examined you, and I don’t like it any better than you do, but you are most definitely retarded.” It’s the most politically incorrect line in the whole movie, and it still makes me laugh, I’m embarrassed to admit. But then I am politically incorrect, and Dawn was intended as a parody of a bad mother. Naturally she would use the r-word.
Doesn’t she also beat Taffy with a car aerial?
Yes. The reason I put that in was because my sister was a social worker, and she told me that child abusers used them because they don’t leave marks.
Did your hero, the French author Jean Genet, influence Dawn?
Of course he did. He said, “crime is beauty.” He influences everything I do. When I got dressed this morning, I was influenced by him.
Someone wrote that Dawn foreshadowed the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Would you agree?
Not really. I have nothing against Smith, but I think Dawn was more intellectual.
“Jean Genet said, şcrime is beauty.’ He influences everything I do.”