John Waters, you say that name in a crowd and some people giggle with secret pleasure and some people shiver with uncomfortable disgust (and others still shrug their shoulders and ask "who?"). However, you mention Hairspray and everyone yells "I love that musical!!"...some of them don't know that it started out as a non-musical film directed by Waters...and it was his first 'tame' picture. He began his filmmaking life making trash-sploitation pictures such as Desperate Living, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, and the infamous Pink Flamingos which all featured the drag queen Divine as some kind of female reprobate involved in violent or disgusting acts. However, with every filmmaker there comes a transition period. Waters was metamorphosing out of his midnight movie phase and into becoming a more mainstream picture, but he needed someplace to start. Polyester was that start. For the first time, Divine was not playing a psychopath but rather, he was playing an unhappy housewife and Waters was not directing strange sexual or violent acts (such as Divine's violation by Lobstora or the infamous 'rosary job') but rather he was spoofing the self-destruction of the suburban family. Polyester showed that Waters was ready to start becoming a more serious filmmaker, even if its not as fleshed out as his later work.
The film centers on the character of Francine Fishpaw (Divine) whose ideal quiet suburban life is being torn apart by her own family. Her husband runs an X-Rated movie theater which is being protested by the community and is also having an affair with his secretary, her mother steals money from her and ridicules her weight, her daughter is running around with nasty boys and gets pregnant, and her son is the Baltimore Foot Stomper! Francine also has a very sensitive sense of smell, which drives her a little insane when she smells unpleasant things. Everything put together causes poor Francine to dive into drinking and finally a mental breakdown. The only friend she has is Cuddles (Edith Massey), her retarded ex-maid who is now rich from an inheritance and even that is little consolation, as Cuddles prefers to naively look at the bright side of things. Everything finally turns around when Francine meets Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) who sweeps her off her feet and appears to save her from herself...but not all is as it seems.
The film really does a fine job at dissecting the problems and secrets we hide in our own supposedly normal homes. It also gleefully skewers the lengths to which parents will go in order to deny what is wrong with their spouses and children, Francine refuses to acknowledge that her daughter is a slut or that her son is a sociopath. In fact, she treats them as if they are still five years old...which is a contributing factor in their downward spiral. The kids are rotten, sure, but they're rotten because their parents refuse to fix the problem. Francine coddles and Mr. Fishpaw ignores and yells. Waters loves showing Ameicans what is wrong with their so-called 'perfect lives' and Polyester is no exception. There is a lot of humor in the film, both subtle and not, but it's easy to be put off by it due to its overly melodramatic nature and the meanspiritedness of several of the characters toward Francine. But if one looks at it as a social satire, then its much easier to enjoy what the film is trying to present. However, in some places it still feels like a bunch of unconnected ideas strung together...like Waters' earlier work. But it does show that Waters is growing as a filmmaker and it certainly paves the way for his true mainstream entry...Hairspray. Give this one a try if you like, but I warn you...its not for everyone.