Female Trouble is not as funny nor as outrageous as Pink Flamingos or his other contemplation of ostracism and criminality Desperate Living (1977) but it still contains full frontal male nudity or that other visual sin, an aging and naked female body. The shock factor has made way for social commentary about the formation of the average criminal… It begins from the start where a youth is divided between being treated as a juvenile delinquent without question of the core mental health issues caused by poverty and sexual abuse. Then there is the middle-class offender who is treated as a mental case instead and evades juvenile hall and goes to the safety of the mental hospital and then possibly lives a life of an invalid and suicide. Then there is the young ‘bad seed’ … supposedly born that way if anyone can believe this is so, angry and deviously defiant… with drinking and smoking during pregnancy possible issues by their parent. Otherwise, the lord moves in mysterious ways!
Dawn Davenport doesn’t like her parents and she is a rebel at high school who is simmering over the suspicion she won’t get “cha-cha heels” from her parents for Christmas. Yes, I got a cheap coffee cup one year and wrecked two cars and a plate glass window in many happy returns! Instead Dawn just stomps on her parent’s Christmas tree, bless her little heart. So, it’s reform school for Dawn – I got dealt the mental ward on a trumped-up charge over the word ‘malingerer’ and a label which I naively let stick for the rest of my life.
Dawn gets her act together enough to get raped and pregnant with a child she would have rather aborted and who annoys her by happily playing skip rope and singing nursery rhymes at an age which suggests she’s “retarded” … Anyway, Dawn is selected to be a client at an elite beauty salon despite her obesity… A good hair-do will suffice in society and can make or break you!… And this will eventually lead to a celebrity one-woman show where Dawn fellates raw fish, jumps on a trampoline and rips up phone directories. If only she had been treated properly while she was still young… The gun atrocity that follows and Dawn’s death sentence is a part of Waters’ pleas for better treatment of those who are pressed on to a path of criminality… and the insanity of the deluded.
Dawn is a kind of Elizabeth Taylor of the underworld and the film shows that people can be chosen to be a “ravishing” beauty if they would like to be famous and are socially connected within the beauty industry of the rich. The fact is that to create models of fame and beauty and stardom for individuals is all done to simply escape “the boredom that imprisons us all.”
This idea is cross-fertilised with Waters’ own professed love of looking at wrecked automobiles as well as people’s fascination for crime scene photographs back in the day in newspapers before porn became readily available at the news stand. People out of curiosity and ennui still like to look at both.
As actor David Lochary (1944-77 fell on a wine glass while on PCP) and his rich wife played by another Waters’ regular Mink Stole (1947-) tell Dawn: “We have a theory that crime enhances one’s beauty … The worse the crime gets the more ravishing one becomes…” And this perversely could be said of the canonisation of murder victims against the celebrity of those who murdered them. People are sympathetic in as strange way and many a mealy-mouthed television presenter exploits this in the name of headlines or ratings.
Waters’ movies often have the same result of an automobile crash scene, there is a strange repulsion which is also irresistible – but in this case funny. It is not hypocrisy to laugh at his movies and Female Trouble is jet black comedy if we do laugh. The essence of black comedy is it is essentially wrong but in Female Trouble this car wreck is for the right reasons as there is a ring of truth to what would otherwise be run of the mill proceedings.
And so, the self-confessed thief Dawn Davenport is given a make-over but suffers the misfortune of having a jar of acid thrown in her face… Careful who you insult in the underworld! Or even your neighbour!! It is then that according to her benefactors she has become even more attractive and poses for the camera as if she were a Vogue fashion model as she is encouraged to wear expensive dresses and make-up despite being what the average person would call physically disabled, even if disfigurement isn’t really recognised as a legitimate disability. Obesity could also be described as another disability as Waters tells us you could be adopted by a studio or producer or some star-maker, just like Waters does with Divine in reality. Such is the zeitgeist of his movies… But it is also a cautionary tale of if you go too far, or become too big for your boots, these sponsors can turn on you just as quickly and forever. And this is reflected by Waters’ deliberately making Cecil B. Demented all those years later in 2000. There is something ingenious about creating a ‘real’ car wreck of a movie by deliberately rejecting Hollywood and possibly deliberately ending a career which had exploited our need to look at improvised car wrecks of repulsively attractive acts and scenes within a movie in the first place… That’s Cecil B. Demented for you instead of That’s Entertainment!…
Dawn Davenport is in raptures over the attention of having her photo taken and since she is a criminal instead of being officially mentally ill, her criminality is magnified within herself by being in the imagined spotlight… She privately severs limbs for the camera in the name of beauty as she begins to lose insight into herself as she commits worse and worse atrocities… and then poses frenziedly for the camera in their aftermath.
There’s some irony in that Dawn performs these crimes in a domestic setting whereas such legitimate beautiful stars such as Bing Crosby (1903-77 heart attack) and Joan Crawford (1902/7-77 heart attack) were absolute closet criminal monsters in their treatment of their children at home. Dawn handcuffs her daughter to the bed just like Crawford used restraints on her son Christopher (1943-2006 cancer) so he possibly couldn’t touch himself which would heaven forbid lead him to become a bed-wetter.
Divine actually rapes himself in Female Trouble as he plays both Dawn and her rapist using a body double. To further add to the tragedy both parents tell their abused and “retarded” daughter to go do the same to herself… the horror of being an “accident” to an unsympathetic mother and a drunken father…. She murders her father and turns to religion.
Dawn walk down the street alone as if she is still beautiful to everyone, I guess that’s called confidence for you or self-delusion. I’m Thor gone to pot but I still feel like Spiderman inside.
“We all know you’re beautiful, it just takes a little for the world to catch on,” Dawn is reassured as the notion that ugliness and obesity doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with being unhappy. You must be a criminal or mentally ill to be happy if you have these physical disabilities. Even my own G.P. told me that when she told me to lose weight despite my protestations I was happy as I was! Dawn Davenport is the whole package.
“Everyone was staring and gawking as if I was a princess,” she says about her delusion which is becoming a part of the realm of the criminally insane.
So, the floorshow of Dawn’s debut on stage for the masses to adore her beauty comes to pass as she is certainly not to be ignored in terms of her new found celebrity which draws people to see her show in droves. Perhaps she is a cult like Divine with only limited appeal and not a worldwide phenomenon?
Before she goes on stage, Dawn strangles her daughter and performs her outrageous routine to the applause of the crowd… But the true fruition of Dawn’s madness or just plain straight thinking is to perform the worst crime in the name of the worst serial killers and possibly worse… as she pulls out a gun and kills members of the audience.
Is the ultimate cult of celebrity not to kill the celebrity you love but for the celebrity you adore to kill you?… and on stage?!
“Who wants to die for art?,” is the reverse psychology that the average person on the street doesn’t ask him or herself but maybe dealt in the streets by the occasional murderer, who has either lost insight into themselves and/or has premeditated their crimes as a result in the name of infamy. The idea of the artist as mentally ill creator of legitimate art opposed to the criminally insane killer and his chosen art form.
There are so many ideas in this Waters’ movie, so many classic characters as usual and the black wit is there with the show trial where the lying witnesses have a bet on the death sentence being passed. This embellishment of the criminal class to help convict one of their own for “sickening exhibitionism” and illegal drug use in that Dawn was introduced to and shot liquid eye-liner up her arm… It all seems so ridiculous but true as Dawn is led down the path to her date with Old Sparky.
As Dawn is led to the chair still believing in her celebrity and beauty and that all those photos taken of her shall enshrine her always… Perhaps she isn’t criminally insane and those once beautiful children who turned out fat and ugly teenagers and who were driven by a bad choice on one or too many occasions and failed to learn from their mistakes… or was it always too late anyway in terms of fate?! Dawn is a martyr and Divine is immortalized.
“I love every f*%king one of you,” says Dawn as she grips the handles of her electric chair like an Oscar as high voltage is turned on much to the delight of the prison guards. Strike a pose Dawn as Madonna sung in her song Vogue as the frame freezes.
Just a final word on Divine who died in his sleep while preparing to appear in an episode of Married … with Children (1987-97) and he is buried back in Baltimore where his parents enshrined him with the wisdom of using his stage name on his gravestone.
“Technique is nothing more than failed style,” John Waters insists is a quote from Cecil B. Demented, a film and character which is a favourite for me as it mirrored the dual lifestyle of being a punk usher and a mainstream journalist as movies and writing and sex all clustered together in my early 20s – a period of experimentation doomed like Sensurround and even Odorama. I was an usher at a high brow cinema once… perhaps I am criminally insane after all as I once led a group of friends for once birthday bash which was the best of my life as the journalists of my generation who rejected my friendship for apparently stealing a VHS film, like a punk from their set, weren’t invited… They wouldn’t have liked the dope smoking and my fat girlfriend anyway.
John Waters’ punk rejection of Hollywood as it romanticizes cinema among the insanity of being an usher in the days of celluloid and the dashed dreams of those film lovers and film makers who lived on the fringe without the money or influence to create a movie of their own… That it’s a glorious failure or success is for you to judge, just like I was over a tape.
Cecil B. Demented (2000) stars Stephen Dorff (1973-) as the frosted hair punk – he was the kid from The Gate (1987) – who is the director of a proposed ‘stolen’ film, or one that steals scenes from locations by its band of underground guerrilla creators. Some were possibly abortions to their parents, others loved, that sport tattoos of the names of various directors which influenced their viewing and their lifestyles… For example, there’s an early appearance by twice Oscar nominated actor Michael Shannon (1974-) who sports a Fassbinder tattoo and will take women anywhere “except home”, while Maggie Gyllenhaal (1977-) is a Satanist who likes Kenneth Anger… as the list goes on.
“I hear she’s a nice person,” says the cinema manager about the stuck-up star played by Melanie Griffith (1957-) who wears an auburn wig and will appear at the equally stuck-up cinema for the mainstream premiere of her latest movie.
The ushers and theatre workers know the drill as the reality of working-class wage and co-workers with middle class aspirations… or film as a dream and the customer just a triviality. They just don’t go together and so it will only lead to death and destruction in the wake of loving this art to death. If the film says anything, it’s about the emptiness of a career in film exhibition and the fake edifice or stage of the cinema screen and its proscenium as ushers and others go through their paces to create the false night at the movies under the fascist direction of someone known as the manager or assistant manager.
There is a blurring of the motley crew that run a cinema who are either just criminals or mentally ill, or gay, or whatever…. The cross section of youth in this movie unite in the name of movies but they reject even the unconventional conventionalists who run the cinema as they serve their mainstream studio created visions of wasted money and talent… That link or bond between the mentally ill and the criminal which was kind of celebrated in Female Trouble here deals with the delusion of being a movie lover and the dream of being a movie maker…. And again, both can be wrapped into one or can be influenced or determined by your social status. This is Waters last plea for social understanding and the abolition of the death penalty… all while rejecting mainstream Hollywood in a ‘mainstream’ movie. He also lets us laugh at the fact these misfits will eventually destroy themselves and/or will be destroyed by their families and society for daring to dream outside of the system.
“Lots of kids dream of making a movie but only those ones willing to die for it succeed,” says Cecil B. as his pack of wild cards kidnap Griffith and inadvertently kill a bystander which makes them eligible for the death penalty.
“… I mean cult…” says Griffith after being taken prisoner as she accidentally insults Cecil’s ‘little’ movie. Hollywood stars are often created by being ‘big’ in other ways.
Cecil B.’s cult of cult movie lovers, are told they are unable to indulge in sexual activity for the duration of the production of his movie, which is in the name of destroying mainstream cinema. It’s Waters’ ultimate sexual irony when the in-your-face sex contained in his underground movies is compared to mainstream Hollywood’s hypocrisy over its ‘affairs’ behind the camera in the name and celebration of its own celebrity and beauty.
Cecil B. Demented prefaces the age of the iPhone movie and the new world of digital independent movie production … but will the new wave of low budget movies ever be accepted by Netflix and other mainstream streaming platforms?
“Feel the pain of underground film,” says the leading man who loves Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016), as he punches a multiplex usher where mainstream rules, as they steal another guerrilla-style scene as he adds: “We are the ultimate bad review.”
In a world where film critic Rex Reed (1938-) once lamented how degenerates such as Waters got the money and cameras to make his early movies, this is a canny remark and the entire script of Cecil B. Demented would also be given a bad review by thumbnail critic Leonard Maltin who called it “unfunny” from the “usually amusing Waters”. Waters may have started out as an outsider in Hollywood and then an insider as one of Hollywood’s favourite ‘pansies’, but Maltin has missed the point and his criticism is that of the Letterman audience and not the hardcore underbelly or underclass of underground or alternative movie lovers forever linked in devilish freemasonry by their love of movies that Reed or Maltin’s beloved studios didn’t necessarily create and which preferably appear in their collections of criticism.
This film may be deadpan and off key as Cecil B. himself is some sort of thumbnail critic of the masters of cinema as he says: “I’m a prophet against profit – and you should refuse to sully your artistic vision with financial success.”
Waters agrees with the suicidal tendencies of those who love the movies to death while at the same time committing career suicide with this movie which also prefigures the new morality of Hollywood where actors and crew don’t have sex lest they face the #MeToo movement or cancel culture… The career suicide of reverting back to the transvestite or manifesto and philosophy of the original Dreamlander productions in the form of a mainstream movie shows that Waters has come full circle with Cecil B. Demented. He no longer or never did have anything to lose.
“I’m ashamed of my heterosexuality,” says actor Jack Noseworthy (1969-) who is at odds with it by being a hairstylist and getting a hard-on, while Maggie Gyllenhaal says back to him: “No-one chooses to be heterosexual” which makes us wonder if the reverse is true.
The vision of this Waters movie encompasses the exploitation film of Warhol through to the unmentioned or unmentionable Michael Findlay (1937-77 killed by helicopter blade) who was associated with an exploitation film named Snuff (1976) … The spirit of those friends who get together to make a movie at all costs will succeed to create if nothing more… Exploitation movies doesn’t mean exploiting others for profit, or does it? It is the downfall of the underground filmmaker not to do so.
“I hate films,” shouts a little girl to Cecil B. when he confronts a crowd and it becomes obvious that movies are not everyone’s cup of tea. Let alone cult movies.
This is a kind of revenge for the success of Hairspray and that could be another title for this anti-mainstream one of a kind mainstream movie. It is frenetic but it is a headbanging and hip hop littered abandonment of any notion of Old Hollywood let alone its ruby slippers…
“We are part of one giant projector….” is the cry of Cecil B.’s movie lovers as they are branded in the name of those in “the valleys of Lebanon to the jungles of Cuba.” They are demented forever and forever and hated as outcasts for their crime of loving movies and letting it blend into their reality. No, the mentally ill or criminals don’t win awards, they are ostracised and put to death or are pushed to suicide as this film tells us.
With the teamster union also insulted somewhere during the proceedings, it was obvious that Waters would possibly never work again in Hollywood… but there was always Baltimore where this movie was shot as well as A Dirty Shame (2004) which flopped worse than Cecil B. and ended any further interest in Waters’s career as a feature director…
I saw Waters in his transition into a stand-up type of confessional personality live on stage and he mentioned he was “mentally ill” but he didn’t specify which particular label he had been given. This has proved a highly successful post-movie cult career for him… And, yes, I guess you would have to be mentally ill to criticise mainstream Hollywood and deliberately commit career suicide…. Was it the psychiatrist that said in the Netflix movie The Woman in the Window (2021), that “once you try suicide you lose the right to laugh about it” – at least among legitimate professionals who joke about it behind your back!
“Well, that’s what you get,” says Cecil B.’s parents as he goes out literally in a blaze of glory attached to a wheelchair covered in fuel and aflame as he plunges off a building in the ultimate suicidal climax to his movie. It was so inspiring, I thought I’d do it myself as I joke about some half-hearted attempt at jumping from the third floor… Try and Google the definition of a jumper and the top answer says: ‘Help is Available’ which doesn’t sound very encouraging as I think of the cries from below of “Jump”. Waters would love that one. Poor Diane Linkletter!
Waters career as a filmmaker may have long ended but he was recently awarded lifetime achievement status for his body of work from one possibly not recognised and certified institution. It was definitely not Oscar but the tributes continue…
“Finally, I’m an insider, that’s the most perverse thing that could ever happen,” said Waters about one of the awards and that his genius had run the gamut of exploitation through to legitimate movie-making and then stomping on the studio system like a punk or spoiled middle-class brat and all the while breaking the taboo in Hollywood that the mentally ill are invalid, something which even the average insane person cannot overcome in the reality of society. Their expectations are not great! But there is a distorted Dickensian quality to Waters who also saw the joke that so-called sexual deviancy and perversion got some sort of tolerance, at least from a latter-day David Letterman audience, and maybe throughout much of the world to a certain degree… Otherwise he thought they could eat shit!
What more could Waters want except to visit Dawn Davenport in the prison for the criminally insane after her death sentence got commuted on appeal as she is over-medicated and her spirit broken? And that isn’t funny.