“Who wants to die for art?” Dawn Davenport (Divine) screams before shooting a willful volunteer to death in a packed nightclub theater. She’s just strangled her own daughter to death, and this is hardly even in Female Trouble’s top 20 most shocking moments. The scene was shocking when it premiered in 1974 and has continued to shock generations of audiences over time.
5th Avenue Cinema’s decision to screen the second in John Waters’ “Trash Trilogy” is a fun one: The screening occurs one year shy of Female Trouble’s 45th birthday, and on the first weekend of spring term. In the film, Davenport can be seen with her friends smoking in the school bathroom and the line, “Fuck homework! Who cares if we fail? I’m wanna quit, and I am, right after I get my Christmas presents!” is extremely relatable. Where Female Trouble stops being a content source is its actual ties to true crime and horror.
For the unfamiliar, John Waters is what would have happened if Andy Warhol had opened The Factory out of a warehouse in Trenton, N.J. The Dreamlanders, Waters’ team of actors named for his Dreamland Productions moniker, were an outrageous Baltimore-based acting troupe willing to embark on Waters’ pursuit of filth to the highest degree. Alongside the drag legend Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), Female Trouble features iconic performances from Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Susan Lowe and Susan Walsh, among others.
Female Trouble’s thesis claims crime and beauty are the same, a bold declaration running counter to what’s perceived as traditional American morality while reinforcing American cinematic practices. For example, the success of glamorized crime stories like Spring Breakers, American Horror Story, American Crime Story and I, Tonya are all films that have been released just within the last five years. However, Female Trouble cites true crimes whose audacity have faded from pop consciousness: the brutal cases of Richard Speck, Arthur Bremer, Leslie Bacon, Juan Corona and Abbie Hoffman. Female Trouble is actually dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson of the Manson Family, aka one of Sharon Tate’s murderers.
But look at what makes Female Trouble stand out decade after decade: Milstead plays both Divine and the gross industrial worker who she robs after he conceives Taffy on an abandoned field mattress. Your fave could never. While some of Waters’ work has been sanitized over the years (i.e. Hairspray), we will never see John Travolta knock himself up. Would your Instagram-cute fave ever tell her cinematic stepdad that she wouldn’t suck his dick if she was suffocating and there was oxygen in his balls?
Baltimore in cinema is an essential Waters motif: the city was once the United States’ capital city, and Waters makes no efforts to elevate the city to a historical or tourist board’s vision. Waters’ Baltimore is tacky, low-class and violent. Drag was still very much in the closet and confined to Hollywood caricature or stages at gay bars. Dawn Davenport wasn’t serving fish realness, she was living her trash glamour fantasy. It didn’t matter whether or not she “passed” as a woman when she was chewing off her own umbilical cord, or chopping off the hand of her ex-mother-in-law (Massey) after she disfigured Dawn’s face with an acid attack.
While American civil rights have greatly expanded over the past half-century, so too have our tastes for what is and isn’t appropriate social behavior. For example, Dawn assaulted a classmate almost as brutally as a scene from 2016’s Moonlight, yet it barely would have registered as offensive in the 70s. Likewise, Dawn’s treatment of her daughter Taffy (Stole/Hillary Taylor) is a microcosmic maternity sample that could have inspired another 5th Avenue Cinema selection, 2011’s Precious. None of Female Trouble’s characters are sympathetic, not even poor Taffy. Finally, mass shootings had not happened yet in the scale and frequency to which they happen now; in just the past decade, America has survived deeply traumatic mass shootings at both a movie theater and a queer nightclub, to say nothing of schools or shopping malls.
In the present era, where an allegedly adulterous, urophillic American president tries to claim moral high ground over his opponents with sensationalism, Female Trouble still resists mainstream acceptance. President Trump’s brand of depravity fits in with the trash tastes of Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary, Pearce), who escape criminal justice because they look and sound like American “respectable” society’s upper echelons. To consider Waters’ filmography as filthy in a time before the present, expertly curated filth, is to witness to birth of shock cinema that never goes full exploitation. After all, exploitation cinema presents sex and violence as its peak, whereas Female Trouble presents sex and violence as its most base.