“Mama, welcome to the Sixties.”
Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is fucking fabulous, and all of Baltimore knows it! The humble hair-hopping heroine of the kitschy-sixties John Waters classic Hairspray is lower middle class and fat—or as she puts it, “pleasantly plump.” Her parents are clueless and preoccupied with their own drab lot in life: mother Edna (Divine) irons constantly and father Wilbur (Jerry Stiller) owns a joke shop below their dingy little apartment. Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), is positively nerdy—not to mention permanently punished.
None of it stands in Tracy’s way of getting what she wants, whether it’s a slot as a regular on a teen dance program on local television, the hottest guy on the show (Michael St. Gerard), or racial integration. She’s a modern kind of girl—she’ll swim in an integrated pool and support the right of “colored” kids to have more screen time than just on designated “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month. Tracy is the height of teen fashion: all ratted up like a teenage Jezebel, no one rocks a sleeveless frock, a plaid skirt, or a pastel pink cockroach gown quite like she does. It should be no surprise that she’s got a modeling gig. And on top of it, the girl can move! Who wouldn’t want to be her?
Tracy’s self-assurance provokes the ire of teachers and mean girls alike, especially rival regular and stuck up little spastic Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her pageant winning mother, “Miss Soft Crab 1945” Velma (Debbie Harry). Tracy commands attention; when Amber gossips about her and sneers, “Tracy Turnblad is a whore,” she reveals the extent of her own intimidation. You know her, come on, rip her to shreds.
Hairspray has John Waters’s trademark demented sense of humor all over it, and stars regulars like Divine and Mink Stole. However, it marked a shift for Waters into mainstream territory (he started with Polyester, but that one is still a bit weird and definitely not as accessible). It’s no shock that it’s his biggest hit. Like his other leading ladies, Tracy is strong; what’s different, though, is that nothing about her despicable—a first for him. In fact, she’s probably the only lead in a Waters film who’s downright admirable. Her confidence is solid, and her heart is always in the right place. Hairspray makes being an outcast look glamorous and accomplished in a way none of his other films do.
I saw Hairspray the first time in a dorm room during my freshman year of college: we rented a copy on VHS tape, which honestly sounds more quaint now than The Corny Collins Show looked to me back then. I’ve seen Hairspray more times than I can count, and I never get tired of it. I’m apparently not the only one, as the multiple remakes and reboots demonstrate. None of them can touch the original. How could anything top Sonny Bono as a dad, or Pia Zadora as a beatnik chick going on about Odetta while Ric Ocasek paints behind her and utters his one-word line: “reefer!”
(Home via iTunes) B+