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All of John Waters' early films, beyond being purposefully shocking and
repulsive, have this really tangible dirty, raunchy quality to them.
They're movies with bad hygiene, like the porno movies whose actors
have dirt under their fingernails or pimples in all the wrong places.
Waters has a special gift for compiling the most disgusting items and
the most disgusting combinations of items (lesbian glory holes,
marshmallows and Cheez-its, egg-addicted 250-lb women, bleeding gums
and French kissing, 'Surfin' Bird' and anal lip-syncing) for maximum
effect, filming everything in grainy, artless 16mm with alternately
wooden and over-the-top line-readings not dissimilar to the acting in a
If you've seen Waters on television, he has a certain sophisticated charm to his wit, and perhaps a dirtier director wouldn't have the right sensibility to make films as authentically dirty as this one, or the discretion enough to choose performers as dirty-looking as Turkey Joe and Kenny Orye. The fact that Waters does not show any contempt or opinion about his subjects is important. He has this open, accepting non-judgmental affection for everyone in his films that makes the films themselves OF the filth they are depicting rather than simply about that filth, and he embraces those of notoriety and dubious character such as Patty Hearst and Liz Renay. He's subversive not by philosophy or decision, but by nature. Subversiveness for Waters means a good time. What distinguishes his work as "underground" rather than "exploitation" is that he celebrates the depravity and freakishness of his performers rather than exploiting.
Every single character in 'Desperate Living' is a sociopath, as it takes place primarily in a fairy-tale town called Mortville, to which housewife Peggy Gravel (Mike Stole) and her 300-lb black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) flee after the latter murders Stole's husband by sitting on his face. Everyone in Mortville is trashy and, well, desperate, and there's a vivid pre-punk vibe here amongst psycho-dyke Mole, played by Susan Lowe, and others, and in the garish, tacky colors of the town's decor, which Waters reports was constructed entirely out of garbage with only one exception.
While I find Waters' 'Pink Flamingos' boring once the shocks become familiar, 'Desperate Living' is a fascinating movie to watch. It's probably Waters' most depraved and outrageous movie, and the funniest of his pre-'Polyester' movies. You get to see the hefty Jean Hill naked, rolling around in bed with Mink Stole, and you get to see Waters regular Edith Massey in all her snaggletoothed wonder as the wicked Queen Carlotta, being pleasured by one of her many leather-clad man-servants. You'll see this and, if nothing else, probably want to catalogue these bits to friends or show them the film, just to get a rise out of them.
It's hard for me to believe that there could be John Waters fans who know
only his mainstream films. They're pretty good movies, don't get me wrong;
but they walk meekly in the shadow cast by his amazing Trash Trio (this,
FEMALE TROUBLE & PINK FLAMINGOS). This one is his all-time best, partly
because of Divine's absence. Had he been available, he would not only have
nabbed the Queen Carlotta role, but become the focus of every viewer's
attention as he usually did. (Well, nobody cites FEMALE TROUBLE for the
Donald Dasher character, right?) The way DESPERATE LIVING worked out, you
finally get a chance to see how good Waters' other Dreamland divas really
were; and they're very, very good. Fact, DESPERATE features some of the most
inspired, OTT female acting ever featured in a movie, "trash" or otherwise.
Mink Stole is unbeLIEVABLE as Peggy Gravel; she seethes with constant neurotic dementia throughout. Her portrayal of misery to the power of ten is less overacting than it is finding the perfect pitch for the role, and making camp on the very spot. The movie-opening running tantrum she spews is one of the funniest things I've ever seen - every third or fourth word is shouted for maniacal emphasis ("The CHILDREN are having SEX!! Beth is PREGNANT!! And I NARROWLY escaped an ASSASSINATION attempt!!") Brilliant. But she's matched, step for weaving step, by Susan Lowe's unforgettable diesel-dyke Mole and the nonpareil Edith Massey as the evil Queen of the criminal shanty-kingdom, Mortville. (If you've never experienced Edith Massey, nothing I can say could possibly prepare you for her....unique...greatness. Let's just leave it at that, okay?) And that's not to discount the typically outre work by Mary Vivian Pearce - who plays her character as if she'd gotten lost on her way to the set of a Julie Andrews musical - or the CGI effect that is Miss Jean Hill. This assembly of female firepower results in one incredible movie that STILL has the power to make you squirt liquid out your nose in helpless laughter, Farrelly Brothers or no Farrelly Brothers. As a matter of fact, the more Waters' early assaults on good taste have become absorbed into mainstream entertainment, the better and more shocking his films look for it. When DESPERATE LIVING stood alone, one hardly knew what to make of it. Now that every lesser talent in show-biz is trying to finance a swimming pool by imitating the Waters touch, it's easy to see, and appreciate, who the innovator and true original is. When Waters made this movie, he was a pariah with nothing to lose...he knew better, but still didn't care. Thus, there's an intoxicating power and thrift-shop integrity to DESPERATE LIVING that none of the Johnny-come-latelies can approach, now that "bad taste" is boxoffice, and safe as milk. If you're gonna wallow in slime, then accept no substitutes, folks: demand DESPERATE LIVING.
"Desperate Living" and "Female Trouble" are Waters' best films, fully
realized trash epics with great characters, gorgeous production design
and an unapologetic affection for trailer trash values.
The story is simple. Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), a neurotic suburban snob, flees to Mortville, the town where criminals live scot-free, after her obese maid, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), sits on and squashes her sermonizing husband, Bosley Gravel (the great George Stover). The women share a bed in Mortville under the roof of a disgusting hovel run by Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a snot-dispensing, pre-op transsexual with impeccable table manners and a luscious lesbian lover Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay). But the living arrangements prove less than harmonious and the entire place is trashed when the women offer refuge to Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), the downtrodden offspring of the domineering, boy-crazy Queen of Mortville (Edith Massey), who objects to her daughter's hippy-fied lifestyle. Complications ensue once the sycophantic Peggy worms her way into the Queen's chamber (and confidence) and a groundswell of support for a revolution intensifies.
The set-up of "Desperate Living" is pure magic. The idea of there being a town where miscreants can live scot-free is brilliant, as is Waters' enthusiastic take on the entire thing. The tone is that of a fairytale painted with snot and mucus and every detail is consistent in its intention to make you want to puke. The sight of Mary Vivean Pearce doing the town with rabies is a green, grotesque delight, as is the scene in which Mole's new penis is severed, then roughly sewn back on.
This is an unforgettable freak show from the puke-loving pope of popular culture.
You'd be a misfit to miss it.
John Waters never apologizes for his movies- and this one is both funny and disgusting. Mink Stole as the hysteric and Miss Edie as the queen are both off the wall good. Waters doesn't shy away from nudity- both male and female-- but it all works to make this a hilarious spoof.
Possibly more depraved than "Pink Flamingos", if that's possible, "Desperate Living" is a paradox for the senses. Although tasteless and shocking, it is ultimately warm hearted and uproariously hilarious. Those familiar with John's style know that these contradictions work splendidly within the context that he intended them to. Never mean spirited, the outrageousness lends itself to an overall statement on the callousness of society itself. Mink Stole is simply incredible as Peggy Gravel. Her ranting and raving throughout the film is side splitting. Special mention to Jean Hill as Grizelda, Liz Renay as Muffy, and of course the ever demure (ha!) Edith Massey as Queen Carlotta. Leave all inhibitions at the door and enjoy this twisted fairy tale roller coaster ride of a good time! A definite 9/10!!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Possible minor spoilers.
From its dead-rat-on-a-platter opening sequence, Desperate Living is a truly special movie. It has that terrific home-movie/documentary look that all of John Waters's early films possess. After the success of his previous films, Waters was able to raise $65,000 (almost triple Female Trouble's $25,000), and the money was brilliantly utilized in the construction of Mortville--a town inhabited by criminals and constructed entirely of garbage. The focal point of the town is Queen Carlotta's plywood castle--a fairy-tale abode that puts Disney to shame.
Mink Stole brings the house down as Peggy Gravel, an insanely paranoid and hostile woman just released from an asylum. Hobbling around with a walking stick, screaming some of the most wildly uproarious lines in screen history, Mink displays the pinnacle of her formidable comedic talents. She's matched by the astonishing Jean Hill as Grizelda, Peggy's thieving 400-pound black maid. Jean brings a new dimension to the giant-woman-on-a-rampage routine popularized by the sadly absent Divine. The two women are so funny that it's rather unfortunate when the focus later shifts from them.
After killing Peggy's husband, the two women flee to the criminal community of Mortville and room with bull dyke Mole (Susan Lowe, in a role intended for Divine) and glamour girl Muffy (legendary stripper Liz Renay). Soon they encounter the town's ruler--Edith Massey, in the role of her career, as the wicked Queen Carlotta. Edie is truly amazing, clad in a birthday-cake dress, being carried on a litter and "serviced" by her sexy leather-stud guards, spouting "royal proclamations" and arguing with her rebellious daughter Princess Coo Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce, also in her best role).
Despite a few flaws (Mole isn't as appealing as obviously intended), Desperate Living remains a hilarious romp through the landfill. Cookie Mueller, George Figgs, Channing Wilroy, and other familiar faces give great supporting turns. From sex changes, epidemics, children in refrigerators, and many other wild and grotesque happenings, it shows Waters's terrific underground talent, which we have not seen undiluted since. It may not be pretty, but it is terrifically funny. I love you, Edith Massey!
Fans of John Waters have always disputed which of his films is his best.
titles will almost always come up: "Female Trouble" and this movie. While
prefer the former, I can understand why "Desperate Living" would also be
considered his best!
While Divine was touring with an off-Broadway play, Waters decided to make a movie starring only women! While there are a few men here and there, the cast is predominantly women! Mink Stole is Peggy Gravel, the snobby upper-class lunatic who goes into frantic anxiety attacks and thinks her children have sex! Jean Hill makes one of two film performances as Grizelda Brown, the black maid who smothers Peggy's husband by sitting on him! Susan Lowe is the butch Mole and Liz Renay is the slutty Muffy, two lesbian lovers in the scuzzy town of Mortville! Edith Massey is the evil Queen Carlotta, the tyrannical ruler of Mortville whose soldiers are leather-clad homosexuals! Mary Vivian Pearce is Princess Coo Coo, the half-wit who wants to marry a nudist garbageman! Cookie Mueller is Flipper, a sadistic nightclub performer who tortures men on stage, and Susan Niesp is her lover who sleeps with midgets! If this sounds like entertainment to you, "Desperate Living" is right up your alley! Additional highlights: a transvestite motorcycle cop with bleeding gums, a bizarre lesbian scene between Peggy and Grizelda, and a sex change resulting in a disgusting penis for Mole, which is eventually cut off with scissors and eaten by a dog!
All of the performances are top-notch, the script and dialogue are hilarious, and overall, "Desperate Living" is worthy of being called Waters' best film (but it isn't). Recommended for those who are looking for a comedy that's different.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was 15 and we had just gotten a satellite dish, i was flipping channels and was greeted by someone running over what looked like a REAL dog, then i saw and heard Mink Stole for the very first time and was hooked. I sat and watched in horror and stunned silence as i witnessed the wildest movie i had ever seen. I was speechless and a little scared to laugh out loud. This movie really opened my eyes, i had know idea a person would/could/should make a film like this...clueless. Anyway, this movie has some of the best lines of all time. "I was raped by those lottery officials" "I'm so hungry i could eat cancer" "I want a wang and i want it now" The list goes on and on you can just about quote almost every single thing anyone says. Years later a friend was a waters freak, and we watched it together and was able to understand a lot more of the filthy stuff, plus i had missed the beginning the first time, and wow what a beginning. I will never miss a chance to see this fantastic movie.
It was 1977, the year the Sex Pistols stormed the British pop charts
with "Anarchy in the U.K.", and John Waters marked the year with the
release of his most joyously angry opus, "Desperate Living".
Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is a suburban housewife who returns home from the mental hospital to the care of her husband Bosley (George Stover) and her massive black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill). She is caught up in one long paranoid screaming fit, accusing a neighbourhood kid of trying to murder her with a baseball and fearing that her pre- pubescent children are having sex. When Bosley catches Grizelda stealing and tries to administer "fit medicine" to Peggy, the pair attack him and Grizelda kills him by sitting on his face.
On the run from the law, Peggy and Grizelda have an encounter with a perverted policeman (Turkey Joe) with a panty fetish. In return for their panties, and wet soul kisses, he shows them the way to Morteville, a town so hideous that criminals can live there in a state of "mortification" rather than go to prison.
The pair rent a room from a lesbian couple, butch Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her busty man-loving girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques (ex-stripper Liz Renay). But they are soon arrested by the leather goons of Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) who orders them to have a trash make- over.
Carlotta's daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivien Pierce) is in love with Herbert (Mike Figgs), the garbage collector at the local nudist colony.
Mole makes the ultimate sacrifice for her lover, Peggy joins forces with Queen Carlotta, and Princess Coo-Coo becomes a victim of her mother's insanity, as Morteville moves inexorably toward revolution.
This John Waters classic is a masterpiece of deranged comedy which repays multiple viewings. Beneath the camp humour and cheap gross-out gags is a surprisingly perceptive satire on the infantile, neurotic nature of fascism. Compare this film with Barbet Schroeder's classic documentary "Idi Amin Dada" (1974), and you will see that the psychology of real fascist dictators is not that different from that of Queen Carlotta. (Idi Amin's portrait is one of several that hangs on the wall in Carlotta's castle.)
Some may not like this film as much as John Waters' other early works because of the absence of Divine, but really this is a benefit in a way as it allows Mink Stole to shine in her one starring role and gives great space also to the incomparable Jean Hill. But everyone is good in this film, with Susan Lowe having her one big role in a Waters' movie. The scene in which she reveals her special gift to Muffy actually has a profound undercurrent of tragedy you just don't expect in a Waters' film.
Look out also for one of Waters' most obvious tributes to Herschell Gordon Lewis in the wrestling scene, an appearance by Waters' current casting director Pat Moran as the bathroom pervert (she also played Patty Hitler in deleted scenes from "Pink Flamingos") and the gorgeous Marina Melin (who had been appearing in Waters' films since "Eat Your Makeup" (1968)) baring all as the chief nudist.
Waters really wears his "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Wizard of Oz" influences on his sleeve with this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For a while this was John Waters classiest film. That's a compliment. Mink Stole and her morbidly obese maid Grizelda flee town after killing Stole's husband. They end up in Mortville, a seedy, trash strewn town ruled by the grotesque Queen Carlotta (the brilliant Edith Massey). They also run into Liz Renay (as Muffy St. Jacques) and the angry Mole, who's desperate for a sex change and heads to none other than Johns Hopkins to get that ball rolling. Needless to say, her new appendage does not meet with a pleasurable fate. Stole gives an absurd performance that should have received Academy recognition and Jean Hill (as Grizelda) is hilarious. The film is insane, a lot of fun and featuring some pretty savvy opening titles.
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