The new liberalism concerning sex in American cinema of the 70s did not extend to homosexuality. Mainstream movies in the era peddle regressive stereotypes and verbal queer-bashing is rife. Queer Cinema would establish a foothold in the 1980s and 90s through filmmakers like Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki and Gus van Sant, but their path was forged by the success of underground filmmaker John Waters, the bard of Baltimore, whose crude 16mm no budget movies trafficked in camp, sleaze, subversion and shock tactics, and who introduced the world to Divine – Glenn Milstead – the first drag queen to crossover to cult status. By the late 80s Waters had broken into the mainstream with films like Cry-Baby and Hairspray.
From the trashiest phase in the career of the Pope of Trash, Desperate Living features some of Waters’ funniest and most controversial scenes. Divine was otherwise engaged mounting a theatrical piece, and her absence liberated Waters to spread the love a little more evenly across his cast. Mink Stole plays Peggy Gravel, an arch conservative housewife who bumps off her husband at the start of the movie with the help of her maid, Grizelda (Jean Hill). They flit out to Mortville, a fascist township presided over by an orange-haired despot, Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), whose narcissism is only exceeded by her appetites.
Waters aimed to make a lesbian revolutionary drama. In the event he offended so many lesbians they protested the film’s release in some cities. Not that they were alone: it would take 90 minutes to list the offensive material herein. Let’s just say, if you don’t want to be offended, this is not the film for you. When you get right down to it, it’s a film about women, and what they really, really want. Consider yourself warned.
Incidentally, Warner Brothers, which owns the theatrical rights to Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, are not allowing cinema screenings for this NC-17 rated films “for legal reasons”. That they continue to license the depravity that is Desperate Living makes a mockery of whatever brand of self-imposed corporate censorship this represents.
For a small but dedicated cadre of fans, Desperate Living, John Waters’s fifth and most difficult to watch commercial feature, released in 1977, occupies the highest peak atop the director’s trash heap of a filmography… The political satire is relentless and confrontational. I’ve now watched the film, joyously, at least a dozen times, but only recently did it dawn on me how disturbingly prescient it happens to be.
Alex Halberstadt, New York Times, 2020
Thomas Loizeaux, John Waters
Chris Lobingier, Allen Yanus
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