John Walters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos proved less problematic across the Atlantic than it did in the UK, and found a niche via the midnight movies circuit – a movement which also offered a cinematic afterlife to similar, non-mainstream features (films which formed the basis, alongside Pink Flamingos, of an entertaining 2005 documentary on the subject, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream). The BBFC were less enamoured with the film, and throughout the years, it has popped up in various unrated and heavily-edited versions (it bypassed the ‘video nasties’ hysteria of the early 1980s) and was only released uncut in 2008.
Director John Waters undoubtedly formed a tick list to include every perversion possible before he settled down to write this film. No stone is left unturned, and the on-screen depravity is really something to behold. It’s that conscious decision by the director to not some much straddle the taste boundary as pummel it into bloody submission, which makes Pink Flamingos the joyous viewing experience it is. There has seldom been a film where the simultaneous urge to laugh out loud, whilst turning your head away from the screen in disgust, occurs.
Shot by Waters himself (and with scant regard to following any cinematic artistry) the threadbare plot has Divine (the cross-dressing alter ego of Waters’ boyhood chum Glenn Milstead) living under the pseudonym ‘Babs Johnson’ in a ramshackle trailer with her mentally-challenged, morbidly obese, egg-obsessed mother, criminal son Crackers and his female accomplice, Cotton. Across town, Connie and Raymond Marble, the proprietors of an adoption agency for lesbian couples (who keep their surrogate suppliers chained up in the basement) are disgraced to learn their mortal foe Divine has been awarded the title of ‘filthiest person alive’.
Thus begins a series of one-upmanship between the couple and Babs’ clan, which results in the film’s most notorious scene – a truly eyes-peeking-through-fingers moment where Divine heroically earns the aforementioned label in an act of shocking, transgressive behaviour which would make Johnny Knoxville and Co (latter-day pretenders to that throne) recoil in horror and hysterically flee the scene.
Enlivened by some truly fabulous 60s psycho-billy, doo-wop numbers – added to the film during an 80s rerelease – Pink Flamingos remains a delightfully repugnant cinematic treasure. Watching Divine as she struts her stuff amongst the genuinely dumbfounded residents of downtown Baltimore, perfectly encapsulates with Waters was reaching for with the film. Although the director has since gained mainstream acceptance (of sorts) with 1988’s Hairspray, Pink Flamingos will be the one which he will ultimately be remembered for having rightfully earned its place in cinema history.
For more details about the BFI’s Uncut season, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.