In a recent post, I suggested that John Travolta, who dons a fat suit and plays a woman in the movie version of Hairspray, must be terrible in the part. After having now seen the film, which is based on a Broadway musical which is based on a John Waters movie, I have to take back what I wrote.
Some critics have unfairly claimed that Travolta is far too restrained for a role that requires grandiosity. (Indeed, Divine created the part of Edna Turnblad in the original Waters film and Harvey Fierstein played Edna in the musical.) What the fuck are the critics talking about?!
Travolta lets loose, and is absolutely hilarious because of it. And, in the film's quieter moments, he manages to morph the grotesquery of Divine and humanizes Edna in surprising and touching ways. The musical's book writers were so smart in the way they turned Waters' Edna into a deeply affecting tragic figure who transforms herself, with the help of her plus-size daughter, into a glowing minor hero. In the movie, Edna hasn't left her small Baltimore apartment in 10 years, afraid that people will mock her weight; she eventually makes it out of the house and out of her shell and shimmies her way toward a showstopping climax that features a rousing song and dance in a red frilly dress.
Underneath all their filth, John Waters films are almost always good-natured and warm-hearted at their core. The musical and movie may sanitize Waters bad-boy vision as well as the complexities of race relations in the 1960s, but expertly retains that infectious good and warm spirit. Some may accuse Hairspray of unrealistic optimism and rank naivete, but, in modern cinema, those things can be considered revolutionary. What's wrong with feeling good?