Watered Down


I was so disappointed by the current movie of Hairspray. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself—I’m a total sucker for the story of Tracy Turnblad, the chubby Baltimore girl with a mom who is really a man, who dances on the Corny Collins Show and gets the hot guy and fights for integration. And it wasn’t just that I was creeped out by John Travolta, whose face has been rendered almost unrecognizable by prosthetics and who speaks in the mannered squeak last heard emanating from the mouth of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie. No, I was sad because a lot of what I loved about the very first Hairspray, the one from 1988 on which the subsequent Broadway show and this new film are based, seems to have gone missing in this latest version.

I’ve never even been to Baltimore, but I know enough about Waters’s personal history—his love/hate relationship with his hometown, his early friendship with Divine (who plays Tracy’s mom in the 1988 Hairspray and is famous for, among other things, eating poop in Waters’s 1972 Pink Flamingos) to realize that what makes the original movie so exciting, at least for me, is the way Waters manages to make the struggle to desegregate, for want of another word, cool.

Believe it or not, Waters—despite his love of rats, bugs, poopoo, and vomit jokes—can be as polemical as Michael Moore. But sadly, a lot of his caca- covered righteous indignation is lost in the current film—partly because this version features the boppy Broadway score instead of the powerful ’60s music Waters employs. It’s true that the current version does take to heart the famous statement by that party animal, the anarchist Emma Goldman, who 100 years ago said so memorably, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The new movie has plenty of dancing, but revolution? For that, you have to go back to the original film.

Waters was born in 1946, which made him a teenager during the most militant years of the civil rights movement. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he based Little Inez, the daughter of his character Motormouth Mabel (she runs Corny Collins’s monthly “Negro Day”) on Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old girl who famously integrated her New Orleans elementary school in 1960 and was memorialized in Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With, which shows federal marshals escorting Bridges to class.

The Corny Collins Show, it turns out, was lifted almost literally from the extremely popular Buddy Deane Show, Baltimore’s answer to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Waters would rush home from school to watch the program every day, just like Tracy Turnblad. (No doubt he danced away the afternoons in front of the TV just like her.)

Though the music on Buddy Deane was overwhelmingly written and performed by African Americans, no black kids were ever seen on the show. And thus the plot of Hairspray, wherein Tracy and her supporters desegregate the Corny Collins Show. In the movie, the program is successfully integrated, but the truth was not so sunny. In June 1962, Buddy Deane’s program was picketed by 20 student activists—both black and white. The demonstrators belonged to the Civic Interest Group, an anti-segregation organization of high school and college students, which was formed at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

Their efforts were not successful. Waters has said that he wanted to give the story a happy ending it didn’t have in real life, though he didn’t think that ultimately this was the fault of station management—he believes the kids’ parents were the real culprits. (In fact, Waters said in 2001 that he thought a lot of Southerners would still have a problem with black and white 15-year-olds slow-dancing on TV.)

Unfortunately, the fabulous scene in the 1988 Hairspray set in the amusement park Waters called Tilted Acres (Tracy on a roller coaster with her hair solidly in place! Amber puking!) did not make it into this new version, which is a shame, especially since it’s based on Gwynn Oak Park, an amusement center that opened in 1893 and was notoriously resistant to desegregation. In the 1988 movie, the kids are having fun doing the limbo and a dance led by Tracy called the Waddle when a mini–race riot breaks out at the park’s gates. This consists mainly of women swinging purses hard at each other, which is a lot more hilarious than what really happened.

In 1963, a coalition of white and black, Christian and Jewish religious leaders including heavy hitters like Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake and William Sloane Coffin Jr., led a demonstration at Gwynn Oak, which would end with the clergymen, along with nearly 300 others, being arrested by the end of the day. Time magazine, in its assiduously non-polemical account, nevertheless managed to capture the atmosphere:

“Ugly Shouts. Moments after Blake and his group entered the grounds, a park owner stopped them, read the trespass law aloud. The marchers remained silent—but they did not leave the premises. Said Chief Lally: ‘You can leave or you can be arrested.’ Still the group was silent. Police moved in, placed them under arrest, led them politely to a waiting patrol wagon. So far the proceedings had been almost stately. But then the situation began to get ugly. Wave after wave of demonstrators moved toward the Gwynn Oak entrance. Police arrested most of them peaceably and drove them to district stations in waiting school buses. But some demonstrators sat down on the ground and refused to budge; they were hauled off bodily. The white crowd of some 1,000 inside the park turned mean, and there were shouts of ‘Dump ’em in the bay,’ ‘Black nigger, white nigger,’ ‘Castrate ’em.’ ”

Of course Waters, whose movie is a teen comedy, not a Ric Burns documentary, doesn’t deal overtly with these harrowing events. In fact, Waters turns this history on its head—or maybe he just speeds things up. By the end of his film, the forces of reaction are vanquished, the kids triumph, and everyone dances around to wonderful music.

And though I sat in the darkened theater on 14th Street watching the new film and pining fondly for the old, not everything in the current movie is such a washout. There’s Queen Latifah’s candlelight protest march, which, though it left my companions groaning, I am embarrassed to say I found kind of affecting. And then there is also that wonderful scene where Tracy gets her mom to come downtown for a shopping spree to replace her shapeless, sleeveless housedress, a costume so dispiriting that Divine, who wore similar garb in the 1988 movie, once quipped: “Believe me, no one can call me a drag queen looking like this.”

To the strains of “Welcome to the ’60s,” a girl-group pastiche that captures the elation when sexy clothes, pop music, and the struggle for a better world mix together with joyous abandon, Travolta sheds his housedress in favor of a mod get-up and a bouffant hairdo of his own. As the song puts it, “The future’s got a million roads for you to choose, but you’ll walk a little taller in some high-heel shoes.”

Emma Goldman couldn’t have said it any better.