Movie still from 1981's "Polyester".

Polyester June 26, 2015

Waters has said that he finds equal influence in high-brow art films and sleazy exploitation trash heaps, and Polyester combines the characteristics of the two with startling mastery.  It's hardly Ingmar Bergman and it's hardly Jack Hill, though. Instead, it’s like a Joan Crawford sudser that bled internally after getting shot at a Seven-11 but still decided to crawl to the nearest movie premiere to make an entrance with drama.  The film is satire, but it’s also a love letter, a stan, if you will, of the Hollywood Golden Age chick flick. 


If you aren’t so convinced of Polyester’s determination to give a sloppy kiss to the good old days of the campy melodrama, listen to this plot: Overweight housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine), who considers herself to be a typical “good, Christian woman,” is about to have a nervous breakdown. Her dear husband, Elmer (David Samson), is the successful owner of a local porn theatre and an adulterer of the lowest common denominator. 


Her kids are maniacs. Her daughter (Mary Garlington) is an aspiring go-go dancer knocked up by a hoodlum, while her son (Ken King), a glue-sniffer, is currently making media rounds as the Baltimore Foot Stomper.  She has no friends besides the asinine Cuddles (Edith Massey), and her verbally abusive mother (Joni Ruth White) makes sure to frequently stop by the house simply so she can berate her.  So after her life eventually goes completely down the shitter, she spirals into an alcohol-fueled depression.  But after she meets Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), a corvette driving businessman, things begin to look up.


Arguably, Polyester sorta kinda sounds like an over-the-top drama even Bette Davis would have turned down.  But this time around, drama doesn’t seem like the right kind of word by way of description. Consider: our female lead is a poorly dressed drag queen who has no problem reminding us that she is, in fact, a man (always a running joke for Waters).  Consider that Tab Hunter, the golden boy of the 1950s teen movie, is her love interest; that her supposed BFF, portrayed by the indelibly lovable Massey, is nearly toothless; that the film, as part of a marketing stunt, came with Odorama scratch-and-sniff cards to give the viewers a realistic aromatic experience.


Nothing about Polyester is remotely serious, and I like it all the more for it.  At first, it appears to be the product of friends getting together and deciding to make a movie. But as the film travels on, one realizes that Waters is actually a clever writer and that Divine is a star, especially when it comes to sniffing loudly (you’ve got to promote that Odorama, after all), making disgruntled moans, and being all around charismatic.  Yes, Polyester is chintzy, but sometimes even the trashiest of entertainment seems like some form of bizarre art.  Waters loves to throw garbage at us, and he’s good at it.  He’s a smart director and a smart writer, as good at shocking as he is causing a guffaw.  And you’re damn right he calls this a

living.  B+



John Waters




Tab Hunter

Edith Massey

Mink Stole

David Samson

Joni Ruth White









1 Hr., 24 Mins.


olyester is a sort of warped women’s picture, something reminiscent of a forgotten late career Liz Taylor vehicle that everyone glances at for a moment only to go back to drooling over something Cat on a Hot Tin Roof related.  I’m sure John Waters wanted it that way.  Around the time Polyester came out, he plausibly began getting bored with merely shocking people. Making his favorite drag queen feast on dog poop for the sake of a jolt wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  Following Polyester, he became increasingly mainstream friendly, his next venture being 1986’s Hairspray, which was, in turn, followed by Cry-Baby and Serial Mom