“Even if the new Hairspray seems a welcome return to camp for Travolta, his mock-seriousness is as frozen as ever.”
When Hairspray was released in 1988, cult cinema fans lamented the softening of John Waters, whose new entry was given a PG rating and welcomed as a family film. The truly skeptical claimed they saw it coming in Polyester (1981), which filtered the raw Waters universe of 1977’s Desperate Living through domestic melodrama. As sweetened as Hairspray may seem for Waters, his “mainstream” dance film is as rooted in camp as any of his other works. His tribute to the pre-British Invasion era celebrates our love of past fads without pandering to nostalgic baby-boomers. By recalling the cheerful frivolity of the 1950s/60s “teen scene” films — and rejecting the dreamy mood of the period fantasies Back to the Future (1985) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) — Waters juggles reverence and satire as viewers follow along in a giddy dance.
An early scene shows contestants of the “Corny Collins” dance show vogueing moves with just a touch of erotic satisfaction. But the fads themselves are not the only means for Waters to infuse camp into the early 1960s. By casting music icons Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as parents of the bratty dance show star Amber von Tussle, Waters has pop history reflecting back on itself. The inclusion of these personalities veers toward the absurd as it leaves Harry and Bono goofy in putatively authoritative roles.
Discussing camp performance is, of course, itself absurd without mentioning the film’s real stars. Newcomer Ricky Lake was a find for Waters, since she had the size and the moves to lend her role credibility and the ability to sustain giddiness for the film’s running time. (Her soon-to-come role as talk show TV maven would make the Prince of Puke only more proud.) Even more essential to the film’s camp is the presence of Waters regular Divine, whose weary housewife charm is informed by her role as Francine Fishpaw in Polyester. As Edna Turnblad, the late drag star once again overplays her role while realizing a unique femininity. After a long tenure in camp, Divine can embody her role and wink behind it too.
Hairspray‘s built-in musicality makes it par for the adaptation-to-Broadway course. With the addition of new songs, fans had to accept the twilight of a narrative-driven Hairspray. (Richard Schickel has noted that the books of Broadway musicals are filler for the numbers.) To resist the scenario turning saccharine is as futile as lamenting Waters’ 1988 departure from Mortville and the like. Sure, we can imagine the producers kneeling to kiss Waters’ ass with the opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore.” (“Just try to change the setting of my story to New York,” the Pope of Trash would have snarled.) The stage musical made good by casting the role of Edna with Harvey Fierstein, who was authentic even if he couldn’t conjure the camp magnitude of Divine.
The powers behind the new film adaptation of the Hairspray musical must have worried after the new film version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers tanked at the box office. In his energetic spoken-word performance This Filthy World, Waters describes what film producers call “heat” — i.e., the recent success of a star, whose presence would promise the same for a new venture: it’s a reality to which even a remake of Hairspray must submit. The new film version had the backing to cast Christopher Walken (as Tracy’s father, Wilbur) and Michelle Pfeiffer (in Debbie Harry’s old role), both of whom can make silly roles quite likable. While the role of Edna demands a camp icon, the production earned publicity early on when it revealed that John Travolta would don a fatsuit for the role.
Like Travolta, Pfeiffer and Walken can camp it up with ease. Having frequented camp sensibility, both can wear it without being consumed by it. Yet Travolta cannot drop the camp persona: having relied on such an approach, he has grown self-serious while trying to broaden his range. Unlike his costars, Travolta was whetted on camp and has developed a career based on this style. In the film that made him a star, Saturday Night Fever, he started a movement that was caricatured before a new fad could set in. Today, his disco dancer plays like a cultural curiosity more than the emblem of the times that such a sensation should be. Travolta was there in Urban Cowboy to help start another fad, though his over-excitable performance as a city boy turned bull rider was out of place, even for a fish-out-of-water scenario. Grease seemed to be just at his speed — the drippy movie was realized so young audience members could mimic his over-exaggerated moves, just as a nation of clubgoers did upon Saturday Night Fever‘s release. As a camp performer circa ’77-’80, Travolta entered the right medium at the right time.
Near the end of the 1980s, a bleak decade for the star, he was goofy as the enlisted daddy in Amy Heckerling’s talking-baby flick, Look Who’s Talking, but didn’t reach the top again until Tarantino cast him in the post-mod trendsetter Pulp Fiction. While the film provided a new milieu for the star, we can’t forget that his character’s camp factor fueled his performance. He suitably followed Jackson’s lead in Tarantino’s trademark conversations, but his performance was sealed when he hit the dance floor with Uma Thurman in a self-referential set piece. (Tarantino has repeatedly professed his fanaticism for early Travolta.) We later witness Travolta’s Vincent Vega harden for a moment when facing an armed Bruce Willis, but the scene would have died had Travolta attempted to match the tension with a dialogue exchange. Even as Travolta was revived, the versatile Samuel Jackson proved more comfortable at stepping away from his character’s exaggerations in serious moments.
Yet a career rejuvenation followed for Travolta and led him to many serious roles, in which he often floundered. He at first declined the Chili Palmer role in Get Shorty, for fear of getting typecast, until Tarantino encouraged him to reconsider the Elmore Leonard adaptation that provided enough camp for Travolta to operate. Then came The General’s Daughter, in which Travolta aped a determined officer and was beaten down by a much more energetic James Woods in the film’s tête-à-tête confrontations. The post-Pulp Fiction ’90s and the new century have shown a Travolta who’s perennially out-of-place. In his current work, his mock-seriousness, which attempts to freeze the camp star operating behind it, has crystallized.
Even if the new Hairspray seems a welcome return to camp for Travolta, his mock seriousness is as frozen as ever. Made up as a realistic Baltimore hefty housewife (as if Hairspray should make use of the commonplace), his rigid countenance shows through the makeup and, along with a wrongheaded falsetto, leaves him robotic. Granted, the guy reminds us he can dance (even when padded up), but next to ex-Ednas Divine and Fierstein, he seems like a last-minute replacement. A New York Times Profile revealed Travolta’s place in creating the wrongheaded interpretation of Edna, as he demanded realistic makeup over a necessary exaggerated concept.
Travolta’s failure, along with a moralistic re-imagining of Waters’ light-as-air racial angle in the 1988 film (beware of a maudlin march led by Queen Latifah’s Motormouth Maybelle), is all the more apparent next to Nikki Blonski, who has nailed an innocent and exuberant Tracy Turnblad. Blonski has the moves to shake down Travolta and lends a natural approach to realizing her cartoonish role. But, alas, her authenticity is too often overshadowed by her mother. The new version had the potential to revise its source material without treading all over it. Yet a serious miscasting has wasted a role essential to the camp roots of Hairspray, which is no longer fun and hardly funny.