Sunday, July 29, 2007

Truth, Lies, and the Poop on Hairspray

My day started innocuously enough: an early Sunday morning walk with Max around the neighborhood. As we returned, I saw a barefoot man across the street on his neighbor's lawn, watching as his dog took a dump. I recognized the dog as one that is often on a chain in the front yard of a house five doors down. Right or wrong, I assumed the man was not planning to pick up his furry friend's package so I stood and watched. He did the cursory look around before walking off and saw me.

"What?" he said, looking embarassed.

"I'm just waiting to watch you pick it up," I said.

"I'm gonna pick it up." He pats his pocket looking for a non-existent bag. It was now clear to me that my assumption was correct - his dog's morning elimination was now his neighbor's responsibility. And he knew that I knew.

"I'm gonna pick it up." he said weakly.

If I had a bag I would've given it to him but I had just used my last one so I said, "Just don't walk your dog past my property." Then I turned the corner away from him.

"Where do you live?" he replied, gaining back a vertebrae or two.

"You're an asshole," I said and continued walking down the block, passing my own house, and turning another corner so he wouldn't know exactly where I lived.

Later, I told George about this encounter, and he yelled at me.

"You didn't say that. He's our neighbor. That is rude. I know he was wrong but sometimes you go to far. That wasn't necessary."

I felt so stupid. I had to tell George the truth.

"Um, well, I actually said 'asshole' under my breath and we were kinda already down the block from each other by then so I'm sure he didn't hear. I think I'd be more frightened than I am right now if I thought he'd actually heard it."

"Really?" George said.

"Yea. I was just trying to be a superman."

He laughed so I think we're cool.

So, with poop on my mind, I decided to see Hairspray, the film version of the Broadway musical update of the 1988 film starring Divine (who famously ate dog poop in Pink Flamingos - full circle). Well, the 2007 musical, which I shall refer to as H2, is a vibrant, tuneful, exciting and yes, at times, overwhelming film. The one/two punch of Good Morning Baltimore and The Nicest Kids in Town, the Corny Collins scorcher, gets your adrenaline pumping. From that point, it falls into familiar high school musical terrain (a la Grease) albeit with the much more interesting theme of integration and race relations. H2 is a throwback to older style musicals where the characters break into song; more recent musicals like Chicago and Dreamgirls added their songs to the periphery of the story - on stages, in recording studios, and in someone's mind. In H2, people sing in the streets and break out in song at a whim. This works as H2 is a joyously wonderful movie experience.

The big question I had entering the theatre was the casting of John Travolta in the role of Edna Turnblad. It took a while before I sorted out my feelings on Travolta's performance. I was glad the director eased Edna into the 2007 storyline; she doesn't show up until after the opening numbers and is very low-key. Edna is now portrayed as an agoraphobic who hasn't left the house in 12 years. The H2 Edna is ashamed of her size; and it subtly plays into that fact when you see Travolta hiding behind synthetic makeup. Don't get me wrong, Travolta turns in a strong and sympathetic performance - one of which he can be proud. But there is a certain irony in someone wearing fat makeup playing a character that dislikes, and is ashamed, of her size. Why was he chosen to play the role? Or why wasn't the weight gain real? So, with all these questions, I decided to watch the original Hairspray (which we'll call H1) for the first time in close to twenty years.

First and foremost, H1 is a comedy, not a musical. The songs serve as musical numbers for the Corny Collins dancers or as background music commenting (applicably well) on the action. H1 feels very real and accurate. (Writer/director John Waters commented that the Corny Collins show is an exact replica of the Buddy Dean show he remembers from his childhood.) It also carries a scenario that is often tastelessly funny (as one might expect from Waters). H2, on the other hand, is a full blown Hollywood musical from the first frame to the last, with over-the-top characters, wild splashy dances, eye-popping colors, a sinfully, infectious score, and a much cleaned-up scenario. (No pimple-popping scene in H2.)

In H1, Divine is proud of her bulkiness. Her size is a non-issue. Divine's Edna is big and wears a house coat, has frumpy, oily hair, and a sweet and sour attitude. While Travolta's character needs provocation to become Tracy's agent, Divine's Edna moves from her mother to her agent to her business manager in a matter of time without provocation. When I first saw Divine onscreen, I realized Travolta's make-up needn't have been so massive if he was going to play the H2 Edna as written. Harvey Fierstein, Bruce Vilanch, and Michael McKean have all famously played Edna at different sizes. Some real weight gain and a little padding would've done wonders for the reality of Travolta's Edna. (Didn't DeNiro do that for Raging Bull? Renee Zellweger?) Not that Travolta is bad; I warmed to his portrayal but it took time.

As for the rest of the movies, Nikki Blonsky and Ricki Lake are both wonderful in the role of Tracey Turnblad with Blonsky playing sweet and pushy as well as Lake does sweet and snarky. The appearance of Jerry Stiller in H2 as Mr. Pinky was a wonderful surprise, and both of his performances (Wilbur Turnblad in H1) are a delight. The morphing of Mink Stole and Deborah Harry into Michelle Pfeiffer is a miracle of cinematic proportions. Christopher Walken's turn as Wilbur is sure to earn him an award nod of some sort. The use of Town without Pity, a song about an interracial romance, in H1 is poignant and, in H1 again, the wino's song is as emotionally relevant as Queen Latifah's I Know Where I've Been is to H2. Both are mastery. Amanda Bynes and Elijan Kelley are winning as Tracy's friends, Penny and Seaweed in H2. And, in H1, the way Waters builds the noise level in the Special Ed class to become the beat that the kids dance to is nothing short of brilliant. There are none of these off-the-wall touches in H2 (except maybe Travolta's wink to his Pulp Fiction dance). But it's still a great, fun film. And the original? It's even more enjoyable, just in a different way. And remember, there ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.

Or, if you'd like, here's the 1977 update which shall hereafter be referred to as ANLTRT2. Interesting how the camp version came second in this instance.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed H2, as you labelled it. (I have not seen H1.) I found H2 to be energetic, light and just plain fun. I thought the music was great (bought the CD.) Queen Latifah was awesome. And the kids were great. Stiller and Walken turned in good performances, as one might expect.
    Ah, the Travolta issue:
    as I was walking out of the theatre, a lady ahead of me was telling her family: "I hated Travolta in this."
    First of all, I hope one's appreciation of the movie doesn't hinge on your impression of Travolta. Because there's lot to love in this movie even if you hated Travolta.
    Secondly, I did not hate Travolta. Nor did I find his performance particularly inspiring. I got the feeling, for whatever reason, that he was a bit tentative in a couple of places. Otherwise, I think it was courageous and fun for him.
    So overall, I'd recommend H2.