This week on TCM Underground: Polyester (1981) and … All the Marbles (1981)

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This week on TCM Underground, we’re going to party like it’s 1981!

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As we head into this holiday weekend, let us be thankful for TCM Underground… programming so out there that it would dare pair John Waters’ POLYESTER (1981) with a Robert Aldrich flick. Yeah, sure, Aldrich directed the greatest hag horror film ever, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1965) — the movie that launched a thousand drag queens (at least) — but so much of his musky oeuvre is devoted to manly mannishness: VERA CRUZ (1954), KISS ME DEADLY (1955), ATTACK (1957), THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1966), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), ULZANA’S RAID (1972), THE LONGEST YARD (1974). How great is it, then, that TCM Underground has partnered for Thanksgiving Aldrich’s final film, … ALL THE MARBLES (1981), about lady wrestlers and the men who love them, with a woman’s picture starring a man pretending to be a woman? I’ll answer that question for you: it’s awesome.

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If John Waters hadn’t started out making films underground, somebody would have tried to put him there. His early work, whose titles alone sound like an invitation to a fist fight (HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET [1964],  EAT YOUR MAKEUP [1968], THE DIANE LINKLETTER STORY [1970] — you might need to Google that last reference) were triple dog dares to polite society, and it only got worse (or, if you’re a fan, better) from there with his “trash trilogy” of PINK FLAMINGOS (1972), FEMALE TROUBLE (1974 — watch it for Christmas), and DESPERATE LIVING (1977). By 1980, however, Waters was interested in a less direct shock approach and his next film, POLYESTER, seemed to many critics a bid for legitimacy. While DESPERATE LIVING had been made for $65,000, POLYESTER tipped the scales at $3,000,000, was shot in 35mm, in 1.85:1, and with helicopter shots and everything! And to sweeten the pot, Waters even presented the movie with a good old William Castle dose of ballyhoo in “Odorama,” a giveaway scratch-n-sniff card by which moviegoers could follow the plot of POLYESTER one bad smell at a time. That’s showmanship, bitches.

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Plus, he got a bona fide Hollywood leading man, albeit a somewhat remaindered one, in Tab Hunter, a former teen hearthrob and star (or costar) of such films as BATTLE CRY (1955), DAMN YANKEES! (1958), William Wellmann’s LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE (1958), and THEY CAME TO CORDURA (1959), opposite Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth. He even had his own TV show from 1960 to 1961. Born Arthur Andrew Kelm in New York City in 1931, he was, like Rock Hudson (aka Roy Fitzgerald), a discovery of Hollywood agent Henry Willson and, like Hudson and Wilson, gay. Hunter kept his sexuality a secret for as long as possible (like Raymond Burr, also gay, Hunter was paired by studio executives for high-profile “dates” with Natalie Wood, in hopes that the tabloids would take them for a couple) but it was Willson himself who sold Hunter out to Confidential magazine, which did its level best to “out” him in 1955. Insight into Hunter’s private life was more of a slow leak and he wound up, or his career did, less a victim of homophobia than of changing times. As Troy Donahue became the new bobbysockser “sigh guy,” Hunter moved on to TV work and blessedly less media scrutiny. The crazy thing is that, even a quarter century after his heyday, even with most of the world understanding he was queer, POLYESTER still seemed radical back in 1981, with Hunter playing Todd Tomorrow, paramour of harried housewife Francine Fishpaw, played by — who else? — John Waters’ regular leading lady, Divine, aka Harris Glen Milstead.

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Divine and John Waters just went together, like, well, like Robert Aldrich and Burt Lancaster, like Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, like Christmas and cha-cha heels. Divine’s death in 1988, after the pair completed HAIR SPRAY (1987), robbed the world of a great creative partnership, forcing Waters to work with real women and, well, more power to him, but it’s never quite been the same. I’m straight. I grew up the son of military parents, loving John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. I love war movies and westerns and Robert Aldrich movies, but I love Divine, too. However their movies were studded with outrageous and filthy acts, and murder and stuff I’d rather not get into, there was always something life-affirming and even sweet about them, and see if you can’t find those sentiments in POLYESTER too. We always get our share of complaints whenever TCM Underground shows something not from Hollywood’s Golden Age but I ask you this: who loves classic Hollywood movies more than John Waters? Answer: no one. No arguments. Shut up. This window is closed.

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Someone else might have programmed … ALL THE MARBLES with, say, KANSAS CITY BOMBER (1972) or BELOW THE BELT (1974/1980) because, you know, they’re all about women competing in sports that seem better-suited for men, and a 10 year old child could see the relationship. But the genius of the POLYESTER-ALL THE MARBLES card is that they are superficially dissimilar movies that nonetheless both look back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and carry that torch with a minimum of mimicry, reference and homage. They are stories about personality, about heartache and disappointment and redemption, and really… what could be a better tonic for freeze-dried treacle of acceptable family programming than that?

1 Response This week on TCM Underground: Polyester (1981) and … All the Marbles (1981)
Posted By swac44 : November 26, 2015 10:57 am

I still have an original Odorama card, too bad TCM couldn’t have sent out reproductions with the November listings magazine!

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