Blu-ray Review: Polyester

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: John Waters | CAST: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, David Samson, Mary Garlington, Mink Stole, Stiv Bators
RELEASE DATE: 9/17/19 | PRICE: DVD $20.67, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary by John Waters, vintage TV interviews, 2019 onscreen interview with Waters, deleted scenes and alternate takes
SPECS: R | 86 min. | Comedy | 1.85:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Polyester was a turning point in John Waters’ (Mulitple Maniacs, Female Trouble) career. The last of his “shock comedies,” it also was the first time he tried to make a “commercial” picture that was shot on 35mm, had a decently sized budget (for his indie productions, $300,000), was rated R rather than a self-imposed X, and was in “general release” (read: for daytime showings, not as a midnight movie).

The result is a slightly schizophrenic creation but a thoroughly enjoyable one. Waters’ first five features were shot in real Baltimore locations but were populated by cartoonlike characters rendered in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion by his stock company of “Dreamland” performers.

The 1981 film was his “first satire on real life” that chronicled the travails of put-upon housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine), whose husband is cheating, her two teen children are delinquents, and her world is filled with very strong smells.

The last-mentioned aspect fuels the silliest and best-remembered aspect of the picture – the “Odorama” process, whereby viewers are signaled to use a scratch-and-sniff card to smell what Francine smells at given moments. The smells range from roses to farts, with one entry being a “trick” offering that makes the whole silly process worthwhile.

As was the case with the previous release of the film on disc, an Odorama card is included in the package. The smells are a bit subdued (especially the “surprise” one), but it’s still fun to play along at home.

“I’m trying to make people laugh, period!” declares Waters in one vintage interview found here. And yet he still saw fit in Polyester to gleefully mock organizations he felt worthy of scorn, from anti-porn protesters to militant pro-lifers. (A spoof of an AA meeting is also wonderfully brutal.)

Waters states in an interview included here that the third act of Polyester needs a rewrite, and he is right. The finale, as it stands, finds Francine’s “savior,” a small-town Romeo named “Todd Tomorrow,” played by Fifties heartthrob Tab Hunter, revealed to be a villain; this simply repeats the abuse of Francine that took place in the first two acts. Hunter is good as both the “romantic” Todd and his later villainous self – one senses that Tab had been waiting several decades to be openly campy onscreen.

The most in-depth supplement is an audio commentary Waters did for the 1993 Criterion laser disc release of the film. In it he offers background to what is happening onscreen, but he frequently veers off onto other, more general topics.

He offers a list of the filmmakers who inspired him, ranging from “the Wizard of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis and indie softcore legend Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) to the subversive king of gimmicks (that accompanied quite well-made B-budget suspense thrillers), William Castle. He also professes a love for arthouse filmmakers, especially Bergman, “because he made suicide fun.”

Most of the commentary is very light, but toward the end Waters indicates the very different direction he went in after Divine died in 1988. “I like working with professional actors now,” he says. Sadly, these “normal” presences in his later films seemed off-kilter to the diehard Waters fan, who yearned for the long sarcastic speeches he wrote early in his career – and the non-professional actors he recruited to deliver them.

At the very end of the commentary he offers up a grimmer meditation. He reflects that various producers he was trying to work with were no doubt “relieved” when Divine died, as Waters wanted to continue casting him in the lead roles of his films and the producers were insisting on bankable names (who hadn’t starred in Pink Flamingos). It’s a grim thought, but one that succinctly explains the transition from a mildly shocking picture like Polyester to “misfit” comedies like Pecker and Cecil B. Demented.

On a lighter note, in the new interview conducted for this release Waters talks about the fact that Hunter (who died in 2018) was a conservative who voted for both Reagan and Trump. Knowing Waters’ leanings, Tab frequently taunted him during the shoot by saying he had happily voted for Reagan.

And while Polyester led to a comeback of sorts for Hunter (who reunited with Divine in the 1985 comedy Lust in the Dust), he certainly didn’t profit off the film, as it was not a SAG production. Thus, according to Waters, Hunter was fined by the union for the amount of his entire salary.

The filmmaker has ample praise for his cast and crew, and two new collaborators, Chris Stein (of Blondie) and Michael Kamen, who worked on the soundtrack for the film. He left them to their devices and says he was surprised to hear Bill Murray crooning the film’s love theme.

The best moments in the new interview have nothing to do with Polyester, as Waters recounts his meetings with Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor (he describes her as “looking like Divine in Polyester”). The most intriguing thing he says is a tossed-off remark that implies that he is now indeed retired from filmmaking – when speaking about how established stars acted on his sets, he says they were never a problem “in any of my movies, until the very end.”

A generous selection of outtakes and extended scenes offers longer views of two of the funniest sequences in the film – the feverish AA meeting and the wonderfully over-the-top scene at the unwed mothers home. Film buffs will appreciate a moment set in the upscale arthouse drive-in owned by Todd, where he informs Francine that “Cinema is truth 24 times a second” (a maxim from New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard).

Some of the most delightful moments in the supplements come from vintage TV segments about Waters and the film. In one we get an unofficial driving tour of Baltimore by John. In another, we see the thrift shop owned by his greatest “found object” performer, the always off-key Edith Massey. In the video clip, Edie maintains that if she did on the street what she did in Waters’ movies, she’d be taken away to an asylum.

For the purest look at the way Waters and Divine were perceived by mainstream media, there is a Tomorrow show segment, in which the pair are interrogated by the late-night host with the finest-ever multi-colored hair, Tom Snyder. Tom seems deeply disturbed by the final scene of Pink Flamingos – which Divine notes he had already discussed in his last appearance on the show.

At one point, Snyder boldly asks Divine if he is gay (the response is that he has a wife and six kids at home). Divine is more interested in discussing his feelings about drag, calling it his “work clothes.” His favorite part of wearing drag, he says, “is to get out of it.”

For his part, Waters simply laughs at Snyder’s dismay over his films. When asked why he makes movies, he simply replies that it’s “to infect as many people as possible.”

Buy or Rent Polyester

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”