Criterion Review: John Waters’ POLYESTER

The “Pope of Trash” returns to the Criterion Collection

A filmmaker nicknamed the “Pope of Trash” may seem like an odd choice for addition to the Criterion Collection, but the bad taste often embraced by John Waters was always accompanied by bold storytelling. Polyester marked his step into the studio system, and while his approach was a little more refined than his earlier independent efforts, it was still undoubtedly a Waters effort. A tawdry dive into suburbia, it’s tinged with melodrama, and complete with the scratch and sniff immersion of Odorama™.


For his first studio picture, filth maestro John Waters took advantage of his biggest budget yet to allow his muse Divine to sink his teeth into a role unlike any he had played before: Baltimore housewife Francine Fishpaw, a heroine worthy of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Blessed with a keen sense of smell and cursed with a philandering pornographer husband, a parasitic mother, and a pair of delinquent children, the long-suffering Francine turns to the bottle as her life falls apart — until deliverance appears in the form of a hunk named Todd Tomorrow (vintage heartthrob Tab Hunter). Enhanced with Odorama™ technology that enables you to scratch and sniff along with Francine, Polyester is one of Waters’ most hilarious inventions, replete with stomach-churning smells, sadistic nuns, AA meetings, and foot stomping galore.

Set in the suburbs of Baltimore, housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) uncovers her husband Elmer’s (David Samson) infidelity. An affair with his secretary Sandra Sullivan (Mink Stole) pushes her to drink, dulling the pain that is soon deepened by the news that her son Dexter (Ken King) has been expelled from school, and her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is pregnant and planning to have an abortion. An escape arrives in the form of Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), an older gentleman who shows serious interest in her, resulting in an affair of her own.

It offers a cross section of this woman and her family, representative of the lower middle class, with scrutiny and immersion in Francine’s world and plight aided by the use of Odorama™. Yep, scratch and sniff was worked into the film upon original release, and it’s back here, and more than a gimmick too. Francine relies on her senses (literally) to navigate the upheaval in her family, with an all new array of scratch and sniff cards printed so you can play along at home. You see her turmoil, you immerse in her plight, as the facade of her life breaks down and the truth becomes apparent to herself and those around her whose opinion she holds in high regard. Her perceived failure as a mother because of the decisions and actions of her children bleeds into this suburban life. It sounds heavy, but the weird dynamics between the characters, the overt theatrics, and sumptuous-verging-on-garish look tilt the film into trashy melodrama. Polyester does feels like a test run of the kind of fare Waters would roll out in later works like Hairspray (1988) and Serial Mom (1994). Sure it’s a little rough around the edges, but he again shows his interest in showing the flaws in people coupled to a clear warmth for them. It’s a tawdry endeavor, pervaded with a chaotic air and Waters’ dark, sarcastic wit.

The Package

This Criterion release delivers a new 4K digital transfer of Polyester approved by director of photography Dave Insley. The image overall looks clean but very organic. Colors pop nicely, with impressive levels of detail, contrast, and depth, with blacks being solid throughout. Some small flecks of damage appear at times, but incidents are few and far between. Overall it’s a resplendent presentation. Extra features include:

  • Audio commentary featuring Waters from the 1993 Criterion laserdisc release of the film: Hearing Waters speak on his own work, and film in general, is always a treat; this commentary is no different.
  • New conversation between Waters and critic Michael Musto: A really excellent interview which draws out plenty of insights as to the intent of Waters, the themes of Polyester, its aesthetic, on-set relationships, and more. Entertaining and informative.
  • New program featuring interviews with Waters collaborators Tab Hunter, Dennis Dermody, Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Mary Garlington, and Greer Yeaton
  • Dreamland Memories: Cut together footage of Waters, Hunter, art director Vincent Peranio, costume designer Van Smith, and casting director Pat Moran. Packs a lot into just over 20 minutes and covers plenty of aspects of production, as well as insight into set life under Waters.
  • Sniffing Out “Polyester”: A selection of interviews pulled from Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary I Am Divine. Largely anecdotes from the filming of Polyester.
  • “No Smoking in This Theater”: Short archival pieces featuring Waters.
  • Archival interviews with Waters, Moran, and actors Divine and Edith Massey, featuring footage from the making of the film: 1. People Are Talking: 5 min TV interview with Waters from 1981. 2. John Waters in Charm City: Local TV segment promoting the film (and locations used) together with Divine. 3. Edith: Queen of Feels Point : A profile of actress (and Waters regular) Edith Massey. 4. Tomorrow with Tom Snyder: A interview with Waters and Divine discussing Polyester.
  • Odorama with John: The director talks about his deployment of ‘scratch and sniff’ cards for the film and their impact on releases that followed.
  • Twenty minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes: Pulled from the personal collection of John Waters, running just over 20 minutes in length.
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Elena Gorfinkel, a foldout poster of the cover, and a scratch-and-sniff Odorama™ card

The Bottom Line

John Waters is a distinct talent in cinema, an auteur with a polarizing aesthetic and approach to storytelling. His fans are sure to be pleased with a Criterion release than offers a resplendent visual presentation of Polyester, as well as an assortment of rich extras. Unfamiliar with the filmmaker? Then this release marks a fantastic way to dip your toes into his brand of cinematic kitsch.

John Waters’ Polyester is available via Criterion.

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