This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Waters’ jaw-dropping, gag-reflexing, pearl-clutching, and yet, culture-shifting, Pink Flamingos. Though it was the third feature-length film by Waters, it was his most successful at the time. Robert Ebert refused to refer to it as a film. This only piqued the interest of young moviegoers.
As a midnight movie, it developed a cult following that, unbeknownst to anyone, became a film that scholars and college professors routinely cite due to its social and cultural implications. There isn’t much that can be said about Pink Flamingos that hasn’t already been discussed, it’s certainly worth reflecting on a few notable scenes and its impact on its 50th anniversary.
Pink Flamingos premiered at the third annual Baltimore Film Festival in 1972. A film with scenes that showed cannibalism, voyeurism, fetishism, castration, cross-dressing, rape, incest, and advocates for murder was undoubtedly full of shocking, grotesque, and disturbing debauchery. It didn’t push boundaries, it obliterated them. And for Waters, that was the point. “I always have something to say…”
Surely with a chicken killed while being roughly handled during a rape scene, a singing anus to the tune of “Surfin’ Bird,” and a drag queen eating dog feces and then smiling shamelessly into the camera, there were some who might have walked out. But there were those who stayed and endured the transgressions that pointed to a larger message – screw conformity and normalcy. Be loud and proud to be different.
Pink Flamingos follows drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) and her non-traditional family as they live on the lam after she is named the “Filthiest Person Alive.” Divine changes her name to Babs Johnson and her family settle in a mobile home on a vacant lot. Her family consists of her son, Crackers (Danny Mills), her mother, Edie (Edith Massey), and their traveling companion, Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). Their quiet life is upended when a jealous couple, Raymond (David Lochary) and Connie Marbles (Mink Stole), become enraged because they believe that they are truly the filthiest people alive. As one can expect, the Marbles spend their time attempting to dethrone Divine for the title. But Divine and her family are not to be outdone. It’s this back and forth that leads to some infamously heinous acts.
The film was made by the outsiders of society for the outsiders of society. Waters and his crew (who named themselves the Dreamlanders) railed against the middle and upper classes in such a way that they couldn’t be ignored. Born in Baltimore to an upper-middle class, Catholic family, Waters showed signs of his individualism early on. As a child, he was obsessed with car crashes and black crayons but rather than psych evaluations, his parents supported him and his interests. His mother took him to junkyards to see cars dismembered in crashes and his father loaned him the money to make his oddball films.
Given free rein, Waters devoted himself to breaking the rules that were instilled by society, particularly by the familial and religious values of his Catholic community. The first in his “Trash Trilogy” series (Female Trouble and Desperate Living followed), Pink Flamingos set the bar for the good bad taste that was to come. Waters writes in his book, Shock Value, “…one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste. It’s easy to disgust someone; I could make a ninety-minute film of people getting their limbs hacked off, but this would only be bad bad taste and not very stylish or original. To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humor, which is anything but universal.”
Pink Flamingos was the type of film that audiences either loved or loathed. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen and those who enjoyed it, did so because it was essentially a dark comedy, albeit a disgusting one, that dismantled social, cultural, and political norms. For instance, when Divine is asked about her political beliefs during a trial in which the defendents are accused of “assoholism,” she famously (and satirically) states, “Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth are my politics, filth is my life!” It comes as no surprise as viewers have already witnessed these very things occur in the movie and will possibly encounter more before it ends.
To further understand the significance of this film, it’s important to consider the culture of America at the time it was released. The Stonewall Riots had occurred only three years prior, gay rights advocates were in the streets demanding equality, the counterculture of the Hippie movement was on the rise, pornography was legalized in 1967, and the Manson family murder trials just ended. All of these events influenced Waters in writing his magnum opus. Each is interwoven into the fabrics of the film, making it all the more unsettling and unpredictable.
Pink Flamingos gave both voice and platform to those who rebelled and didn’t fit into society. It foreshadowed the punk movement that rose to prominence shortly after its release. Punk culture was influenced by Waters’ eccentric and rebellious characters like the Marbles, who sported cheeky red and blue hair, colored by a magic marker. These bold looks became one of the staples of punk. Just like the partygoers who jump into action when the police crash Divine’s party. They too foreshadow the punk attitude. Like Divine, they keep to themselves and only respond violently when their livelihood is threatened. Here, that violence is cannibalism. The attack reflected the frustrations during the time and the turmoil that imploded in between protests for equality and violence at the hands of the police. Pink Flamingos was a middle finger to the values and traditions of order, compliance, and subservience.
Perhaps this idea is most evident when Divine struts along a downtown sidewalk to the song “The Girl Can’t Help It.” The scene is parodied from the 1956 film of the same name. In the latter, Jayne Mansfield is admired by male onlookers. She wears a tight-fitting, elegant dress that accentuates her slim figure and a large matching hat that denotes her upper-class status. She’s perceived as being so attractive that her presence produces animated reactions from inanimate objects. For example, the milkman’s jug of milk explodes in a not-so-subtle nod to her onlooker’s desires.
However, when Divine walks down the street to the same song, she attracts looks of shock and bewilderment. Everything about her is excessive. Her makeup is clownish and her hairline is pushed back to the top of her head. Still, she’s just as confident as Mansfield. Though people don’t understand her, she’s comfortable with herself and that’s all that matters. The scene with Mansfield was also excessive. But because Mansfield is viewed as an attractive, feminine presenting, woman, her excess is deemed worthy and acceptable. Her excess is something to be admired and celebrated while Divine’s is something to be suppressed and condemned. Lastly, it shouldn’t be lost on viewers that Little Richard is the voice behind the song. He too made people uncomfortable with their inability to label him. His feminine attributes and gay lifestyle also attracted confusion and fear.
In another scene that openly critiques the status quo, the Marbles kidnap young women and lock them in a basement where their butler, Channing (Channing Wilroy), impregnates them. The couple then sells the newborns to lesbian couples. The way in which the children are conceived is appalling but the act of allowing same-sex couples the opportunity to adopt children was considered progressive. Waters played on the fear of Americans who were horrified at the thought of same-sex couples raising a family. A gay man himself, he used shock as a device to counteract their preconceived ideas about gay and lesbian couples and families.
Still, a movie with such transgressions, went on to receive prestigious accomplishments. Though Waters lost every court case due to the obscenity of the film, in 1975, it was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art. Additionally, it was inducted into the National Film Registry in December of last year. Created in 1988, only 825 films are listed in the registry. The list isn’t designed to include the best films ever made. Instead, it’s comprised of films that are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” relevant. Once regarded as “one of the most vile, repulsive, stupid films ever made” by Variety in 1973, Pink Flamingos became a “landmark of queer cinema” according to the Library of Congress.
Waters, whose nicknames include the “Pope of Trash,” the “Sultan of Sleaze, and the ”Prince of Puke,” promoted Pink Flamingos as an “exercise in poor taste.” This exercise proved to be one of great significance as it became the epitome of how to achieve good bad taste in filmmaking.
The exercise certainly caught the critic’s attention. Their negative reviews only generated more interest in the movie. Audiences were flocking to see the film that was labeled as obscene, filthy trash just to test whether they could stomach the very real transgressions that took place. For one to say that they had seen it for themselves was a quirky badge of honor. After Waters submitted the film to Bob Shaye of New Line Cinema, Shaye distributed the film to Ben Barenholtz, the owner of New York’s famed Elgin Theater, a haven for midnight movies. Pink Flamingos found success in the midnight movie circuit and eventually became a cult classic. Notable midnight movies include Reefer Madness (1936), El Topo (1970), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1977).
These midnight movies were often synonymous with B-movies and usually included a trashy aesthetic. For those looking for a lowbrow, trash film with cult potential, Pink Flamingos did not disappoint. The plot is outlandish and, for lack of better words, loose. The amateur actors overact and frequently indulge in long-winded, quotable monologues. The costumes are cheap and thrifty and the shots are shaky and feel voyeuristic. It mimics an amateurish, found-footage style that became popular in mainstream movies, mainly in the horror genre. Pink Flamingos felt like a home video with Divine, her family, and the Marbles as the subjects. This shooting style only made the events more shocking and disturbing. Additionally, the movie also popularized the age-old word ‘camp.’
While camp is difficult to define, essayist, Susan Sontag, provided her definitions in the acclaimed essay “Notes on “Camp” (1964). According to Sontag, camp is an artifice, an exaggeration, and a love of the unnatural. It isn’t serious (if it attempts to be, it fails) and is always innocent. As an example, she writes, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” A parallel can be drawn from the aforementioned scene of Divine walking the streets of downtown Baltimore.
Further, Waters was extremely serious when making Pink Flamingos. In an earnest effort to test the rules of taste, he set out to highlight what he saw as issues within American society. He used comedy and shock as tactics. Before Pink Flamingos, Waters submitted two films to New Line Cinema for distribution. However, he was told to come back when he had something more polished. He proceeded to make Pink Flamingos. It was his very serious attempt at making something “more polished.” Though Waters was serious, it certainly wasn’t perceived that way.
Sontag also touches on the relationship between camp and the LGBTQ+ community. Though she doesn’t delve into the history between the two, it’s important to note that they are intertwined. Camp is rooted in otherness. Historically, it is not part of the mainstream. This pertained primarily to minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. Camp was once a coded language for the outliers of “normal” society. But over the years, what was once forbidden and secret has become more acceptable and common. For instance, bad taste and trash are mainstream. Gay culture is celebrated. Ball culture, rooted in the African American community, inspires entertainment and fashion trends. Mildred (Divine) stated that ball culture influenced his character. Pink Flamingos upped the ante of what it meant to push boundaries. It permitted a place for transgressions to be displayed and explored.
Because Pink Flamingos helped to push camp into the mainstream, it also aided in diluting it. No longer did the outsiders have a coded language that “normal” people weren’t privy to. Simply stop at the magazine rack at the local grocery store and one is exposed to it.
Divine was a huge part of this change. She became the face of a different drag culture because she transformed what it meant to be beautiful and attractive. In the past, drag queens strived for elegance and class. They wore expensive jewelry and fancy clothes. They sought to fit in with the idea of what a woman should be in an attempt to be seen as non-threatening and acceptable.
Divine, however, was the polar opposite. She was heavyset, vulgar, and edgy. She wore dresses that were tight and makeup that was cartoonish and loud. In a comedic twist, she became the influence for Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. She also gave way to hit shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose where excessive edginess is welcome. Similarly, to enjoy trash, one no longer has to wait until midnight to be exposed to numerous transgressions. Movies like Jackass and the American Pie franchise piggybacked off the gross-out humor of Pink Flamingos and other John Waters films. Waters even made an appearance as himself in Jackass Number Two as an acknowledgement to his legacy.
Waters used Pink Flamingos to express how he felt about the country’s social, cultural, and political climate at that time. He was able to entice people of different backgrounds to see his films and created a community of misfits, crackpots, and scholars. Pink Flamingos was a platform for those discarded and ignored by society while telling those who weren’t, ‘hey, you’re just as twisted as the rest of us.’ Seeing how Waters’ humor has found a place in the mainstream, it’s safe to say, he might have been right.
*To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Pink Flamingos will be rereleased by The Criterion Collective on June 28, 2022.