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It takes a look at an issue that doesn't necessarily seem to be a goldmine of laughs (racial difficulties in the early '60s) and turns it into just that without robbing it of any dignity or sense of importance. John Waters seems to have pulled out all the stops to insure this outcome, and it really paid off.
The "pleasingly plump" pre-talk show Ricki Lake turns in a great performance in a role that's an inspiration to "chunky" girls everywhere.
As always, Waters picks cameo and supporting actors that are dead-on perfect. His own turn as a psychologist is an absolute scream! Brimming with hysterical lines and set-ups, this is a comedy you need to see, if you haven't already.
Such a person is Tracy Turnblad played by later television host Rikki Lake who's a full figured gal in every sense of the word. Her biggest desire growing up in Baltimore of the Early Sixties is to get on the local teen hop show hosted by Corny Collins. The regulars who dance there have a celebrity status, but something a fat girl dare not hope to dream.
Tracy doesn't hope, she lives the dream and actually gets picked to dance and be a regular to the distress of plastic teen princess Colleen Fitzpatrick. But it's a cause for celebration for Tracy's parents played by Divine and Jerry Stiller and her best friend Leslie Ann Powers.
All this is against the background of the civil rights era and Baltimore had its problems also. The Corny Collins show is segregated with a prescribed Negro Day once a month. That seems as bogus to Tracy as baseball being segregated not too long ago and she joins the fight to integrate the show. She's even convinced her teen dream new boyfriend Michael St. Gerard to join in as well.
A subplot is Powers finding love herself in the person of Clayton Prince who is black and that's upsetting to a lot of people, not the least is Powers's mother. It would be within that same decade that the Supreme Court did away with miscegenation laws, so these kids are running some real risks.
Hairspray is a very funny film with a very serious message about live and live. In fact that's the main problem with the world today right now, certain people feeling they've got the right through religion or secular philosophy or plain out and out wealth who just feel they've the right to dictate the lives the rest of us are supposed to lead in conforming to how they see the world.
In the remake of Hairspray, Queen Latifah who plays Ruth Brown's role of Motormouth Mabel says to the characters playing the Powers and Prince roles that as a racially mixed couple that those young people should be prepared for a whole lot of stupid in the world to deal with. One cast member of this version of Hairspray had occasion to deal with a whole lot of stupid back in 1994.
In the cast he's listed as Keith Douglas, lead singer of the Lafayettes DooWop group, but he was Keith Douglas Pruitt, a talented musician, actor, and composer. He and his partner were attacked by a trio of suburban rednecks who were dismayed at seeing two members of the same sex holding hands on Waverly Place. Keith sustained a fractured skull and a hearing loss for a while looked to permanently impair his career in music.
It was in my working days with New York State Crime Victims Board that I met Keith Pruitt. I did the claims for both he and his partner, giving them what my agency could provide for both of them. He did go back to work eventually to the applause of his friends and admirers of his work.
Keith Pruitt died only a week ago at the age of 47. He left a legacy in art, but he also left a legacy in life as a genuine hero. One who certainly never started out to be one, but things are thrust upon us in life sometimes. He stood up to the homophobic bigots and bashers with dignity and pride. I'm really proud I knew him and was part of his story in a small way.
And so this review of Hairspray is dedicated to Keith Pruitt, someone we can all emulate in life.
"Hairspray" is highly exaggerated in parts, which makes it extra funny, and Waters captures '60s Baltimore beautifully. Corny Collins, who is the Baltimore Dick Clark, would like nothing better than to integrate his television show, but blacks are only permitted to dance one night a week. The van Tussles are for segregation - that would be Sonny Bono, running for office, his wife Harry (on stage the former Miss Baltimore Crabs, in the film Miss Soft Crab). Harry's hairstyles are fantastic - HUGE - her last hairdo is in the form of an enormous loving cup.
When Tracy's friend Penny takes up with the son of an outspoken black woman, Motormouth Mabel (Ruth Brown), her hysterical mother has her kidnapped and put in the hands of a psychiatrist (Divine as a man) who tries to torture her to stop liking black men. It's so outrageous it's funny, and that's where Waters shows his talent. When Tracy gets a contract modeling for a plus-sized woman's shop, the owner's live ad on Corny's show begins, "Tubby, tubby, 2 x 4, can't get through the kitchen door." It's this madcap treatment that keeps any of this from being remotely offensive.
All the performances are delightful, and there's a nice turn by Pia Zadora as a black-haired beatnik chick.
"Hairspray" has a lot of warmth that emanates from Tracy and the Turnblad family, and the mood stays upbeat throughout the entire film as the characters dance through life, Tracy with an overlay of blonde hair over her dark flip. Great music, great fun. "Hairspray" in any version is wonderful.
But, the star of the show was Ricki Lake in her first year as a film actress. She camped up John Water's script and delivered an enjoyable musical movie with a message that is just as important today as it was 20 years ago.
It was really interesting seeing people like Sonny Bono, Blondie, Jerry Stiller, Pia Zadora, and, of course, writer/director John Waters himself.
A goofy satire that is just as good today as it was then.
The top-billed Divine steals the show as Tracy's out-of-touch mother Edna whom Tracy brings into the 60's by giving her a beehive and changing her frumpy house frau dresses into more stylish couture. From the moment Divine snarls, "Keep that racket down, I'm trying to iron in here!", you know you're in camp heaven. Add on Jerry Stiller as her easy going as pie husband, Wilbur (who owns a local novelty shop), Mink Stole (as Corny Collins' assistant) and "Guiding Light" veteran Shawn Thompson as Corny, and you've got the perfect mix of eccentrics and bigots for what many people rank as John Waters' finest film. While not as racy as previous John Waters films, there are moments of non-PC humour that rank up there with Waters' funnest tasteless moments. The title song that opens the film sets the stage for everything to follow. It's a shame it wasn't kept in the Broadway version that sanitized the humour. The major difference between the two film versions was the defusing of the character of Edna; Divine's matron was obviously a volcano ready to explode, while Harvey Fierstein played the part as a butterfly with a sting. By the time John Travolta got to it, all spark was gone, and Edna seemed like a shell of her former self. As for the original version, everybody is letter perfect. Michael St. Gerard delightfully makes what could have been a pompous conceited character extremely likable, while Colleen Fitzpatrick is everybody's teenage nightmare as Amber. Clayton Prince is charming as Seaweed, and Leslie Ann Powers exudes innocence as Penny. As her frantic mother, Jo Ann Havrilla is extremely funny. "Get away from me, you voodoo woman!", she screams at Ruth Brown ("Ooh Papa Tooney, We Got a Looney!), who is simply delightful as she brings black and white teens together as if a Den Mother for "Checkerboard Chicks". Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasak offer amusing cameos as a pair of beatniks. The ending is delightful, although the plight of the Von Tussles is somewhat off-putting.
The most shocking thing about the film to me, though, was that Divine played a very wonderful and touching mother! Despite his/her great size, she loved her daughter, Tracy, and her husband and seemed like a pretty typical housewife--despite actually being a guy in drag. Divine also played a male role as an ultra-racist jerk and it was fun seeing him in dual roles (which he also did in FEMALE TROUBLE when he made love to the female version of himself, believe it or not).
Ricki Lake played one of the more wonderful characters of a teen I have ever seen. Despite being very overweight, she was the type of kid I would love to have as a daughter--being very self-confident and decent through and through. It was also great seeing the plus-size Lake dancing very credibly in the film. In fact, I loved her dancing and the songs--you can't help but snap your fingers and enjoy them. What I particularly liked about her character was that Tracy knew she was fat but didn't care, and as a result, those around her accepted her. In particular, the cutest guy in the film fell for her and could look beyond her weight. I know this isn't exactly like real-life, but it's sure how I wish life was and it is so great to see a non-neurotic fat and happy girl on film. All too often, they are either ignored completely (such as the unwritten "no one above a size 6 allowed on the film" rule), or shown as pathetic or tortured (like in the excessively pointless and cruel French film, FAT GIRL).
Since it really is a John Waters film, despite all the nice and wonderful things, there are also the usual strange supporting characters as well. The best examples are Ric Ocasek (lead singer from The Cars) and Pia Zadora as the drugged-out beatnik couple that have very little to do with the movie's plot. But there are also appearances by Debbie Harry (from Blondie), Jerry Stiller, Sonny Bono and a few others who bounce in and out of the film. Strange casting, by the way is THE one constant in all Waters films.
Now for the plot, despite the whole emphasis on huge hair and doo-wop music, there is actually a deeper story that has substance. Ricki Lake (Tracy) has just become a regular on a local dance show (similar to American Bandstand, but set in Baltimore). She's an instant local celebrity and adored, but despite this, she cannot ignore that Black people are never allowed on the show with White kids--even though the music all has roots in the African-American culture. When her dippy friend (Penny) begins dating a nice Black man, Tracy cannot just ignore the segregation even though it would have been the safest thing for her to do in the early 60s where the movie is to have taken place.
This leads to perhaps the funniest portion of the movie. Although there is a strong message of tolerance and racial togetherness, it is handled in a very funny tongue-in-cheek manner. When Penny and the gang go to a Black neighborhood in Baltimore to learn more about the local dance scene, her mom assumes Penny is going to be murdered! When this hysterical woman chases them into the "ghetto" and then behaves like she is going to die, it is a laugh riot!!! Every time a Black person comes near her, she assumes she's going to die. When a hobo asks for a quarter, she gives him her purse and begs him not to kill her!!! It's so over-the-top, it's a great way to attack racism caused by ignorance. It gets even better when Waters himself plays a quack psychiatrist that tries to hypnotize and torture Penny into giving up dating a Black man! Despite how it sounds, this is not offensive but subversively funny! Overall, it's rare that I enjoy a movie as much as I liked this one. And when it was over, I felt great--and that makes this a truly special movie.
UPDATE: I just saw the movie again and, begrudgingly, I must admit that I actually like the remake better. It did seem to have an energy level and polish that made it just a 'hair' better.