Polyester was the turning point in John Waters’ career, because it was the first film he made with a real budget, and even a movie star in the guise of Tab Hunter. Waters had already crafted out one of the most unique bodies of work ever created in his previous underground/midnight movies, like Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs, Desperate Living, and the best of the bunch, Female Trouble. He had basically gone as far as one could on minuscule budgets, and had to make a jump to mainstream acceptability. Polyester is that, but none of his transgressive edges had been shaven off.
It’s basically a satirical takeoff on Douglas Sirk, but with his 300-pound drag queen lead Divine playing the unhappy housewife Francine Fishpaw. Francine and her husband Elmer (David Samson) run a porno theatre in nice, conservative, suburban Baltimore! Their children are both delinquents: son Dexter (Ken King) sniffs glue and may in fact be the local foot-stomper, and daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is a spoiled teenager who is going out with Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators!). The husband is sleeping around, but soon Francine meets Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter). Will they have a happy ending together…? Unlikely!
Despite the massive increase of budget to $300,000 (all of the previous films were under $65,000), Polyester is still a scathing attack on suburban middle-class values and the Christian right. The casting of Tab Hunter is a sly nod: Hunter was gay (and very conservative, much to John’s chagrin, he told John he voted for Donald Trump the last time he saw him) but was still very much in the closet and wouldn’t officially come out till 2005, with the publication of his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. His agent said it would be career suicide, but Tab is on record as saying “if the finished film turned out as funny as the script — then I’d look pretty smart for having taken the chance.” The fact that he was able to poke fun at his manufactured image and also his closeted sexuality actually saved his failing career. Tab and Divine would star in Lust in the Dust later on in the ’80s, which both were desperate for John to direct, but he doesn’t direct films unless he also writes the screenplay.
The performances from everyone are great. It’s one of John’s funniest films and also visually impressive: he goes as full out with his Sirkian colour schemes as the budget would allow. However, given how nuts the film increasingly becomes, it’s almost more attuned to Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, or as I call it, “Douglas Sirk on crack.” The film is also notable for the use of Odorama, which was a cardboard card handed out to cinema patrons with various smells on it. The Blu-Ray includes a reproduction of the card so you can smell the film as much watch it in the safety of your own home. It was inspired by the gimmicks of another one of John’s heroes, the producer William Castle, whom John ended up playing (despite no physical resemblance) in the mini-series Feud.
Polyester remains one of John’s very best films, and is the transitional film from the early movies to his more mainstreams films, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom. It also includes a great score created by Michael Kaman, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry—and there is even a song sung by Bill Murray in the film! Tab Hunter sings in the film as well, he had a massive hit during the ’50s with his debut single “Young Love.” It’s also the final film John would do with Edith Massey before her death in 1984.
The disc from Criterion is stacked, including the old commentary from the Criterion Laserdisc! The new features include a conversation with John and Michael Musto, a new documentary about the making of Polyester with interviews with John and the various Dreamlanders, archival interviews with Waters and cast, 20 minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes, the trailer, and finally the classic John Waters “No Smoking” PSA, which was used for years in arthouse theatres in the US. The book includes an essay from the film scholar Elena Gorfinkel, a reproduction Odorama card, and a fold-out poster of the Blu-Ray cover, which is a send-up of old ’50s romance paperback covers.