Polyester (1981)

Polyester (1981)

“This whole world stinks, Francine, so get used to it!”

When a put-upon housewife (Divine) with an abusive mother (Joni Ruth White) learns that her sleazy husband (David Samson) has been cheating on her with his secretary (Mink Stole); that her drug-addicted son (Ken King) is the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper; and that her teenage daughter (Mary Garlington) has become pregnant by her good-for-nothing boyfriend (Stiv Bators), she’s not sure how much more she can handle. Will her good friend Cuddles (Edith Massey) and a mysterious handsome stranger (Tab Hunter) help turn her life around?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Family Problems
  • Housewives
  • Infidelity
  • John Waters Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Tab Hunter Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “disappointing John Waters comedy” was “filmed on 35mm on a much bigger budget than his midnight-movie classics”, and that perhaps due to “catering to a broader audience instead of shocking it, [the] film is a step backward on the outrageous scale” (it was Waters’s first R-rated film). He notes that “the scenes with all Waters’s regulars don’t have the spontaneity present in the earlier films — in fact, they seem to be showcase scenes meant to familiarize the new Waters viewers with the Waters style they’d heard about”; but “for veteran Waters fans, most of these scenes are [simply] watered-down versions of classic Waters scenes.” He concedes that “at least the reliable Divine gives a standout performance as harried, dissatisfied suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw” (that name!), but complains that “the dialogue by Waters is disappointing — more laughter comes from just paying attention to the props in Francine’s house and the film’s unbelievable wardrobe”.

I’m more or less in agreement with Peary’s assessment, which highlights the trajectory Waters’s films would take from then on: Hairspray (1988) — featuring Divine in his final performance before his premature death at the age of 42 — was made into a Tony-winning Broadway musical (which was then turned into a film of the musical based on the film…); Cry-Baby (1990) starred big-name Johnny Depp and was likewise turned into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical; and then — thankfully — Serial Mom (1994) became Waters’s most deliciously mainstream yet subversive film of his later career.

Polyester is most notable for its satirical send-up of Sirkian “women’s pictures”, and for its homage to William Castle by featuring “Odorama”, with the following scratch and sniff smells available to audience members: 1. Roses, 2. Flatulence, 3. Model Airplane Glue, 4. Pizza, 5. Gasoline, 6. Skunk, 7. Natural Gas, 8. New Car Smell, 9. Dirty Shoes, and 10. Air Freshener.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Divine as Francine Fishpaw
  • Many typically OTT Waters sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time viewing.


One thought on “Polyester (1981)

  1. Not must-see – though Waters fans will likely have a certain fondness for it.

    I don’t think I could sit through this again for the purpose of making this post a fresh view. If I recall, I did actually watch it again sometime within the last 3 years – and was reminded that I don’t feel it’s one of the director’s stronger works.

    I saw it on release in New York City. To a degree – because of the audience participation aspect with Odorama – there was a fair amount of group-dynamic fun. ~which is something separate from the film itself; if you’re watching it at home on DVD (alone or even with friends), that plus-element is likely to be lost.

    Waters’ career eventually took a hit (‘Hairspray’, ‘Serial ‘Mom’) or miss (‘Cry-Baby’. ‘Pecker’, etc.) route until – it seems – his desire to make movies was simply played out. He has given us some truly inspired examples of hilarity – when he was truly inspired.

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