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Retrospective: Female Trouble - Nice Girls Don't Wear Cha-Cha Heels!


How do you follow a film like Pink Flamingos? With Female Trouble of course! It took several watches to realise how great this 1974 cult classic actually is. Waters' regular collaborator, Mink Stole has labelled it the best of his earlier films (and citing Serial Mom the best of his latter) and coincidentally features her finest and funniest JW performance.

Female Trouble follows rebellious teen, Dawn Davenport (Divine) running away from home after she does not receive the cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas. She is subsequently raped by Earl Peterson (Divine) and has his bratty daughter, Taffy (Mink Stole). With a daughter to support, Dawn turns to a life of petty crime, go-go dancing and hooking. However, fame soon beckons when she becomes the subject of two photographers fascinated with taking pictures of women committing crimes. This new found acclaim has some negative consequences and the electric chair comes a callin'.

Certain critics find it easy to simply dismiss Waters' work as crude trash, but many fail to realise the ambition and depth that goes into his work, most notably in Female Trouble. This is pitch perfect black comedy capturing the entire life of a woman, where Waters' satirizes every thing that gets in his way from: the media, crime, fame, parenting, sexuality, region and art. And of course it is delightfully trashy, whilst managing to be rather poignant at the same time. I can't think of any other filmmaker that could achieve that combination.

The opening, Waters' satire of school life, where the 250-pound Divine dons a beehive to play a 16 year old troubled teen disrupting her class, is surely one of cinemas' most underrated comic sequences. This is followed by the joyously entertaining Christmas day sequence where Dawn trashes her parents living room upon receiving a pair of pumps instead of her much desired cha-cha heels, whilst her parents scream "Please, Dawn! Not on Christmas!". Seeing these roles reversed later, where Dawn becomes the parent, allows for some comic gold: Dawn summarises the challenges of parenthood "I've done everything a mother can do: I've locked her in her room, I've beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It's hard being a loving mother!"

Divine is a truly wonderful performer and does not receive enough praise for it, most seem distracted by the fact he performs in drag. However, there is wonderful poignant performance at the heart of this film and Divine excels as the tragic anti-Hero.

The 'crime is beauty' angle that the film takes makes for a highly enjoyable satire of the fame that beseeches criminals. Seeing Dawn manipulated into becoming a mentally ill monster of crime by the deliciously evil Donna (Mary Vivian Pearce) and Donald Dasher (David Lochary), makes for a fascinating character study. This culminates in the murder of her daughter, Taffy, the kidnap of her ex-boyfriend's sexually confused aunt (Edith Massey) and a twisted stage show. This warped one-woman show prior to the film's climax is a mix of manic and repulsive hilarity, where Divine completely dominates the screen. Seeing Dawn's trampoline acrobatics and suggestive dances with dead fish is without doubt one of Waters' finest moments as a director.

Waters' also twists the subject of society's obsession with sexuality through Edith Massey and Michael Potter's characters. Massey's Ida is obsessed that her nephew, Gator, becomes gay, because no one could be happy with a heterosexual life, stating: "I worry that you'll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life". Massey once again shines throughout especially in the latter half of the film where Ida is kidnapped. Seeing her sitting in a cage in a white feather dress with a bloodied hook for a hand, allows for some perfect laughs. 

Female Trouble may be overshadowed by the sheer outrageous nature of  Pink Flamingos, but I personally believe it is a more striking, poignant and tragic satire on the world in which we live, with some of Waters' best comic dialogue and Divine's finest performance.

Next up is Desperate Living on Monday.



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