Thursday, July 26, 2007

Will the real Hairspray please stand up

Okay, so I went to see the new Hairspray movie.

While it was kinda fun, as a fan of the original John Waters movie, I just can't bring myself to approve of this new silly musical version. Not that John Waters' version wasn't silly -- but on an entirely different level.

John Waters' movies were/are also subversive/experimental/strange, and while Hairspray was certainly his most accessible film, it still had some edge. The only edgy thing in the new film was Waters' own tiny cameo in the opening sequence playing a flasher. And I was the only one in the theatre who laughed at that.

I think part of the problem was the casting. John Waters is famous for off-the-wall, somewhat ironic casting, using a consistent stable of regulars (his childhood friends) including Divine and Mink Stole, but also regularly casting Patty Hearst (yes, that Patty Hearst) and Tracy Lords (yes, that Tracy Lords) and Sonny Bono, and Debbie Harry alongside some brave hollywood stars willing to take a trip on the John Waters train... like Johnny Depp, and Kathleen Turner and Edward Furlong. (Okay, Furlong was a bit of a star at the time. Did Pecker ruin his career? Perhaps.) Also funny was casting Selma Blair as a monstrosly large chested woman in A Dirty Shame. That movie didn't entirely work for me... (the first half was pretty funny) but casting probably the smallest busted actress in hollywood (one of the few slim actresses who have shunned breast enhancements) as the HUGE-chested Caprice Stickles, that, to me, was funny. (In an ironic kind of way.)

Now, some might say that casting John Travolta as Edna Turnblad was edgy, but I don't agree at all. I think casting him was the anti-edgy casting choice for that role. Edgy for me would have been casting Nicole Kidman and not putting her in a fat suit.
I kept trying to decide what really bothered me about casting John Travolta as Edna Turnblad and think I finally put my finger on the issue for me...

The part was originally played by Divine. Yes, anatomically, Divine was a man. And yes, she was grossly overweight. But she didn't typically play men as an actor. She was a transvestite. I doubt Waters said, "wouldn't it be funny if we cast a man in this role." No, I expect he wrote the part for Divine. Divine played female roles in all Waters' movies. All the ones I've seen anyway. Casting John Travolta and putting him in a fat suit just makes a joke at Divine's expense to me. And not the kind of subversive jokes John Waters always made with his bizarre castings in his movies. More of a pre-adolescent-boy snickering-at-someone's-expense joke.

On the other hand, it was fun to see Jerry Stiller, the original Wilbur Turnblad, in a tiny cameo in the new movie... but again, Divine and Jerry Stiller as an onscreen couple -- Stiller being close to two feet shorter than Divine, as well as much smaller -- was much more fun. Travolta and Walken seemed like they could barely contain their own sniggering during their love-scenes together rather than actually acting their parts.

The casting "joke", if there was one in the original Hairspray, was having Divine also play the evil and racist Arvin Hodgepile. "Look, Divine's playing a man. Isn't that funny?" And I don't remember Edna being so insecure about her weight, either. But I may be misremembering. Edna Turnblad in the first movie, like her daughter Tracy, was proud of how she looked. To make Tracy's weight such an obvious, non-subtle issue in the new version destroyed the whole idea of her character for me. Yes, her weight played a part in the original, but the charm of it was that the "good" people in the first version didn't even notice or ever mention Tracy's weight. It was a non-issue for Corny and Link and her parents. A metaphor if you will for the racial issues highlighted in the film.

I probably sound more angry about this than I am... I actually did have some fun watching the musical version. And I'm sure lots of people will like this new Hairspray who wouldn't like the original. To each their own.

And comparing the two movies is a case of apples and oranges (or transvestives vs male actors dressed up as women.) Not the same thing at all.

7 comments:

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Maureen, I haven't seen the original movie, but I did see the musical on Broadway and I can't wait to see the movie. John Waters is actually quite happy with what they did with the movie on stage. Harvey Fierstein played the original Edna, with a gravely voice and a fat suit. For me, the musical is all about Tracy and her journey, and less about Edna.

Wylie Kinson said...

I haven't seen the original movie yet, but hope to see the remake...

I tagged you for a meme, Maureen. It's about books, so I hope you'll play along. Go over to my blog for the instructions.

Alli said...

Maureen, I haven't seen the new version - and I'm not running out the door to, either. I am a HUGE fan of the original - and I get the distinct feeling I would be severely disappointed with the new version. From what I've seen of interviews and shorts, this new version is for the "general viewing public". Whereas the original, in my mind, had that lovely John Waters cult following - ie you were "cool" if you'd seen it (at least it was that way when I was a teenger and the original was out).
I agree about the whole Divine/John Travolta thing. As much as I love John Travolta, he isn't Divine. And let's not mention the fat "issues" - it was done (actually underdone) beautifully in the original. Back in the 80's we didn't have "issues" shoved down our throats - at least not done in a neon signboard kinda way.
Ok...... getting down from my soapbox now!

L.A. Mitchell said...

I have nothing to contribute to this thread except to say how you so totally know about things and ideas I've never thought about or heard of. I love reading your posts just to learn about your world and life from a different angle. I'm sure your books are like that, too. Can't wait to see one on the shelf! 007, baby :-)

Grammar Geek said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way... I loved the John Waters version, and I've been really hesitant to see the new one, despite my overwhelming love for all things musical.

The John Travolta thing bugs me for all the same reasons. I can buy Harvey Fierstein in the role, because he's done drag before. This one... i dunno, it's almost like they went, hey who's the big musically stars right now, let's shove 'em in a movie together... and wouldn't it be HIGH-larious to get the guy from Grease and put him in a dress?

Maureen McGowan said...

That's exactly it, Grammar Geek. I'd be okay with Harvey Fierstein in the role, too...

And Elizabeth... while John Waters is laughing all the way to the bank and therefore publicly happy... I heard him make some very, shall we say, hedged comments about it when I saw him do a talk at the TIFF. Hairspray was actually filming in Toronto at the time and he'd been on set a few times.

I realized my post came across much more negative than I meant it to... I just have this nagging feeling that the new makers of Hairspray were poking fun at the kinds of things that John Waters loves, and not poking nearly as much fun at the actual things the original was intended to poke fun at... racism, predjudice of all kinds, mainstream society, puritanism... To make such a mainstream version of this story... while a fun movie, kind of misses the point for me.

Christine d'Abo said...

I loved the original Hairspray movie, but haven't seen the new one yet. There was something weird and wonderful about Ricki Lake, Divine and the rest of the cast.

I don't think you were negative, Maureen. In fact, it's been the most thought provoking analysis I've read on this yet.

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