“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” – John Waters (Shock Value)
This is unlike any other movie: it is a test of endurance. Pink Flamingos is a visual shock game, where you play for as long as you can stand the excruciating jolt to the senses. and the physical nausea it induces. And this also makes it an important movie and worthy of, well, celebration. Before I go any further it is worth mentioning that in late 2021, the Library of Congress inducted Pink Flamingos into the National Film Registry. They gave it that prestige because it is so influential. Cinema, and indeed some parts of our culture (Punk for example), would not have existed with the same ferocious attitude.
At the helm of this disgusting juggernaut is the maverick filmmaker John Waters. Openly gay, and highly influenced by Andy Warhol, the Baltimore-born Waters triggers either a love or hate response to all he creates, never a middle ground. Over the past five decades, he has become an institution in his own right, along with being an actor, author and presenter. With Pink Flamingos, Waters stuck his head above the parapet and shifted slightly from the underground art scene.
After six low-budget and sometimes short features beginning in 1964, John Waters began to gain momentum. These early art-house styled films, usually soaked with sleaze and dark humor, came to fruition in 1970 with Multiple Maniacs – currently holding a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With that movie he set a course that would run straight into Pink Flamingos. Over time he put together a regular gang/troupe of actors named the a gang called the Dreamlanders, first seen in 66’s Roman Candles. And from then on Waters had a secret weapon: he had Divine inspiration.
The actress Divine was the creation of the sadly-missed Harris Glenn Milstead. Milstead was a performer, and a character actor who became the foil and focus to drive Waters’ cinematic vehicles. Of course Milstead was a drag queen, a gay man who viewed the alter-ego of Divine as merely a job. The fact he did it so well, became an LGBTQ icon and made drag queens cool 50 years ago, is just one part of his aesthetic – “I’m not a drag queen. I’m a character actor” he stated on numerous occasions. Both Waters and Milstead grew up in Baltimore, and at 16 he met John Waters who christened his persona Divine, and turned an overweight, bullied young man into a ‘300-pound beauty’. Sadly however he passed away of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 42, but his legacy is everywhere, and everlasting.
Deconstructing Pink Flamingos is the artistic equivalent of trying to put a pin back into a grenade – a filthy one at that. This movie rejected society as much as society rejected it. In some part, that is down to the content and themes contained within the 92 minute framework. These include scenes of masturbation, voyeurism, cannibalism, sodomy, rape, incest, murder, scatophilia, castration, lots of profanity and crush fetish – in this case of a live chicken. With all that to consider, there is a storyline – albeit an obscure one, which the movie revolves around. We find the infamous criminal Divine living under the moniker of Babs Johnson. She is holding up in Arizona with her mother Edie (Edith Massey) – who dresses as a baby and sits in a crib – her unhinged creepy lover Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) and her son Crackers (Danny Mills).
The protagonist of Pink Flamingos is of course Divine, the self-proclaimed “filthiest person alive”. Divine’s right to that title is called into question by challengers Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond Marble (David Lochary). As a side business to pornography, the Marbles kidnap young women, get them impregnated by their servant Channing (Channing Wilroy), and then sell those babies onto lesbian couples. A ‘to and fro’ ensues between the Marbles and Divine. This results in them contacting the police who are ambushed, murdered and eaten by Divine and her crew (these are the lighter bits). After Connie and Raymond burn down her beloved home (or rather trailer), Divine and Crackers track the pair down, and contact the media to witness the public court and execution of the Marbles. Yes, that’s the gist of the story. The profanity and controversial aspects happen as the movie plays out – such as Channing’s castration, which relegated the film to a popular ‘midnight movie’ of early 70’s cinema.
Whatever your impression of Waters, Divine and Pink Flamingos may be, the movie released a flare into the social darkness and started a ripple effect, becoming “the most important queer film of all time”. It is a film that changed cinema, changed our opinions, and equally horrified us. Where some attitudes remain the same, society has changed slightly since its release half-a-century ago, and there is no denying how Pink Flamingos helped to push the world along. It also enabled people who were different to know they were not alone. Even if it is something that turns a stomach or two, and indeed life can do that without the help of John Waters, he did a considerable job bringing all all the horrors together. Even up to that final, memorable scene, where Divine scoops up some freshly laid dog feces and eats it. I told you it was disgusting.