Forty-eight years ago today, the John Waters film Female Trouble premiered. There’s just no getting around how it is wrong on many levels, which in turn, makes it very right. There is thought, planning, design, and precise execution required to make a film so trashy and at the same time, compellingly watchable. The look of Divine’s character was based on the woman in the famous 1966 Diane Arbus photograph of a young Brooklyn family on a Sunday outing. And yes, the film is dedicated to Manson Family member Charles “Tex” Watson, who also inspired it’s “crime is beauty” theme, and that is so messed up. Or is it somehow holding a mirror to the faces of every true crime content creator and consumer out there? Anyhow, you should watch it.
Title: Female Trouble
Directed by: John Waters
Written by: John Waters
Produced by: John Waters
Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Susan Walsh, and Michael Potter
Cinematography: John Waters
Edited by: John Waters and Charles Roggero
Music by: John Waters and Bob Harvey
Production Companies: Dreamland and Saliva Films
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Release date: October 4, 1974
Running time: 97 minutes
Country: United States
Delinquent high-school student Dawn Davenport goes berserk when her parents refuse to buy her the shoes she wants for Christmas because “nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels”: she destroys presents, topples a Christmas tree on her mother, and flees the house. Dawn hitchhikes a ride with a lecherous man, Earl Peterson, who drives her to a dump where they have sex on a discarded mattress. Dawn becomes pregnant, but Earl refuses to support her. She gives birth to a daughter, Taffy, a brattish child who she often beats and severely punishes. Dawn works various jobs and engages in criminal activities such as burglary and street prostitution with former high-school friends Chiclette and Concetta.
Dawn begins frequenting the Lipstick Beauty Salon and marries Gater Nelson, her hair stylist and next-door neighbor. Donald and Donna Dasher, the owners of the beauty salon, recruit Dawn in a scheme to prove “crime and beauty are the same”. They entice Dawn to commit crimes by promising her fame, supplying her with drugs and money, and photographing her crimes to stoke her vanity.
Gater’s aunt, Ida Nelson, is distraught over her nephew’s marriage because she hopes he will become gay and settle down with a man. When the marriage fails, Dawn persuades the Dashers to fire Gater, who moves to Detroit to work in the auto industry. Blaming Dawn for driving Gater away, Ida exacts revenge by throwing acid in her face, leaving Dawn hideously disfigured. The Dashers discourage Dawn from having corrective cosmetic surgery and use her as a grotesquely made-up model. After they kidnap Ida and imprison her in a large birdcage, they give Dawn an axe to chop off her hand as revenge for the acid attack.
Taffy, now a teenager, is distressed by her mother’s criminal lifestyle and convinces her to reveal the identity of her father. Taffy finds her father living in squalor and drinking excessively. She stabs him to death with a chef’s knife after he tries to sexually assault her. Taffy returns home, falsely claims she was unable to locate her father, and announces she is joining the Hare Krishna movement. Dawn warns her she will kill her if she does.
Dawn, now with bizarre hair, make-up and outfits provided by the Dashers, mounts a nightclub act. When Taffy appears backstage in religious attire, Dawn fulfills her threat and strangles her to death. Dawn brandishes a gun onstage during her nightclub act and begins firing into the crowd, wounding and killing several audience members. When police arrive to ostensibly subdue the crowd, they shoot several audience members themselves but allow the Dashers to leave when they claim to be upright citizens. Dawn flees into a forest, but is soon arrested by the police and put on trial for murder.
At the trial, the judge grants the Dashers immunity from prosecution for testifying against Dawn. The Dashers feign innocence and completely blame Dawn for the crimes she committed at their behest; they also pay Ida to lie on the witness stand. Although Dawn pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury finds her guilty and sentences her to die in the electric chair. As a priest says a prayer and Dawn is strapped to the chair, she thanks her fans for her notoriety before being executed.