Release Date(s)1981 (September 17, 2019)
Studio(s)Dreamland/Michael White Productions/New Line Cinema (Criterion – Spine #995)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
His first R-rated effort after a decade of shocking cinemagoers with some of cinema’s more outlandish and over-the-top satires, Polyester was also John Waters’ first film with a major studio, though New Line Cinema was still considered more of an independent than a major player in the early 1980s. Their fledgling success was partly due to John Waters as they had picked up Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living earlier on, but this was the first time that the two had worked together on a project. The film itself garnered mild praise, mostly for Divine’s performance since he was finally beginning to be taken seriously as an actor.
Meeting at the crossroads between soap opera gone sideways and romance novel, the film’s story concerns Francine Fishpaw (Divine), a devoted housewife with a keen sense of smell. Her smut-peddling husband Elmer (David Samson) is blatantly cheating on her with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole), her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is failing in school and flaunting her body for the local trash, and her son Dexter (Ken King) gets off on stomping women’s feet, for which the police are searching for him. Her overbearing mother (Joni Ruth White) continuously rebukes her, but her best friend Cuddles (Edith Massey), a former cleaning lady turned debutante, attempts to cheer her up by taking her out for a good time. Francine’s troubles only get worse after becoming a desperate alcoholic. Out of nowhere, the handsome and charming Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) appears in her life, but is Francine simply sniffing around for more heartache?
Divine is the end-all, be-all of Polyester. He out-acts everybody in the film, broadly at times, but never winking at the camera. He inhabits Francine in a way that makes you forget you're watching a man in drag. The situations and the characters are definitely exaggerated, but Francine’s pathos is the nucleus of this incredibly nutty story. Add to that a colorful set of characters, seasoned Dreamlanders, and others new to the John Waters world and you have a disturbed and mistreated suburban housewife pastiche of immense comedic magnitude. Look no further than Edith Massey’s ridiculously hilarious dialogue: “This house is like Architectural Digest, Francine!” “It’s just those common Baltimore public schools. God, I wish I lived in Connecticut!” “At first I thought he was walking his dog. Then I realized it was his date!”
Criterion brings Polyester to Blu-ray (their third John Waters title, following Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble) with a new 4K digital restoration of the original 35mm camera negative in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which was supervised by John Waters and director of photography Dave Insley. The film has a minor soft look, partly due to the cinematography but also because of occasional graphics and overlays, but the film has never looked better on home video. The encode is high and grain management is carefully attenuated, helping to reveal an abundance of fine detail, from the interiors of Francine’s home to the exteriors of the Catholic home for unwed mothers. The color palette is fairly rich with natural skin tones and cool hues, including potent blues, reds, and greens. Blacks are deep and both brightness and contrast levels are ideal. The image is also stable with no apparent damage leftover. It’s a highly organic presentation, complete with the original introduction by Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw about Odorama, as well as the subsequent number cues that originally appeared on screen.
The audio is provided in English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. Though the film is no aural powerhouse, the new fidelity gets the most out of it with good dialogue exchanges and frequent uses of natural and dubbed sound effects. The score, as well as the music numbers, also have added dimension. It’s far from a flat track, but is strong enough that a stereo or surround sound remix would seem pointless since there isn’t much to work with in the first place. It’s also a clean track, free of hiss, distortion, crackle, and dropouts.
The following extras have also been included:
- Audio Commentary with John Waters
- No Smoking in This Theater (HD – 0:46)
- John Waters and Michael Musto (HD – 37:44)
- Deleted Scenes and Alternate Takes (HD – 20:12)
- Sniffing Out Polyester (HD – 13:36)
- Dreamland Memories (HD – 22:34)
- From the Archives – People Are Talking (SD – 4:10)
- From the Archives – John Waters in Charm City (SD – 7:25)
- From the Archives – Edith: Queen of Fells Point (SD – 6:16)
- From the Archives – Tomorrow with Tom Snyder (SD – 7:14)
- Odorama with John (HD – 4:00)
- Trailer (SD – 2:20)
Audio commentaries featuring John Waters are always enjoyable, and this one is no different. He watches the film, commenting upon it gleefully while reminiscing about the making of it—presumably with an unheard moderator—while providing a number of great anecdotes about his cast and crew. The conversation between Waters and Musto is also lively as the two discuss the film, with Musto occasionally asking questions, but mostly allowing Waters to pontificate, which is always preferable. The twenty minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, which were apparently found in Waters’ attic recently, showcase many excised moments and slight trims that were evidently cut out of the workprint. They provide additional connective tissue, but also feature the lost moment that Waters brings up during his commentary and interview in which Dexter shaves off one of his eyebrows during a drug-addled haze. Sniffing Out Polyester features interviews with Tab Hunter’s partner Allan Glaser, production designer Vincent Peranio, film critic Dennis Dermody, friend of Divine Greer Yeaton, and actors Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, and Mary Garlington. Dreamland Memories showcases footage from the making of the film, as well as audio interviews and archival footage of John Waters, casting director Pat Moran, costume designer Van Smith, Vincent Peranio, Tab Hunter, and Edith Massey. People Are Talking is an interview with Waters during the making of the film by WJZ-TV in Baltimore. Charm City is a TV program featuring an interview with Waters, Divine, and Massey for promotional purposes. Edith: Queen of Fells Point profiles Massey, which also aired on WJZ-TV in 1978 on the program Evening Magazine. In Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, Waters and Divine are interviewed during the promotion for the film. Odorama with John features the director trying out Criterion’s samples of smells for their recreation of the Odorama card, with various levels of success and failure.
Inside the package is that faithfully-recreated Scratch and Sniff Odorama card, which takes the enjoyment of the film to a whole new level as each smell is either incredibly disgusting or simply apropos to the situation. Also included is a fold-out insert with the poster of the amazing cover art for this release on one side, and the essay The Perils of Francine by Elena Gorfinkel, as well as restoration details, on the other. It’s worth noting that not all of the extras from the original Criterion Laserdisc are present. In addition to the commentary and archival materials, there was also a production scrapbook, the Love Letter to Edie short film, and audio of John Waters reading from his book Shock Value, which acted as an additional audio commentary on side two of that disc.
Like most of John Waters’ oeuvre, Polyester is a hoot. It’s likely distasteful to some, especially for those brave enough to put their Odorama cards to the test, but it’s far from the cinema of his more rebellious days as a filmmaker. It’s somewhere in between, and Criterion’s disc is an essential purchase long-time fans and newcomers alike.
– Tim Salmons