Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Divine’s performance as Francine in John Waters’ Polyester.
There are a lot of masters of the midnight movie, but arguably none are more accessible than John Waters. His films have a way of tapping into our carnal desire to revel in the grotesque underbelly of suburbia in a way that feels both authentic and strangely relatable. Waters gets under our skin through his emphasis on the trashiest extremes of society, but we enjoy his films because he injects his bizarro-world Baltimore with outrageously endearing characters in love with shag carpets, macramé, and the incandescent aroma of polyester.
Like other cult movie directors, Waters employs a dedicated company of eccentric character actors — called Dreamlanders — who’ve worked with him consistently throughout his career. And while most of the Dreamlanders, from Mink Stole to Edith Massey, perfectly understood the tone and mood that Waters strived for in his narratives, no one embodied his aesthetic quite so purely as Divine.
Despite appearing in almost all of Waters’ films up to his untimely death in 1988, Divine’s brand of full-throated performances is always boiled down to one singular scene from Waters’ “exercise in poor taste,” Pink Flamingos.
Towards the end of the 1972 film, after Divine’s character, Babs Johnson, murders a couple trying to usurp her title as “the filthiest person alive,” she proves herself worthy of the moniker by scooping up a fresh piece of dog poop, popping it into her mouth, and smiling slyly at the camera as Waters’ narration declares Divine “the world’s filthiest actress.”
It was a moment that instantly burned into cinephiles minds, and inarguably made Divine an overnight cult sensation as Pink Flamingos ran on the midnight movie circuit. While this scene beautifully illustrates Divine’s brazen dedication to his craft, it also eclipses the nuances he layers into the outer extremes of every character he played.
That’s why Divine’s character, Francine, in Waters’ 1981 film Polyester is such an important moment in his career. He channeled the grotesqueness of his previous roles into an uncharacteristically restrained performance that manages to both fit perfectly in Waters’ garish aesthetic and act as a subtle commentary on the evolution of the American Dream.
Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1945. His parents, Harris and Frances Milstead, had worked for a Black & Decker factory through World War II, amassing considerable wealth that they lavished on their son. They were quick to cater to his whims, endlessly funding his expensive taste in clothing and cars, regardless of how steep of a bill he’d rack up. As he once said, “I was an only child in, I guess, your upper-middle-class American family. I was probably your American spoilt brat.”
Divine lived off of his parents’ wealth, but he found a calling in hairdressing, wowing stylists with his ability to expertly coiff beehives and updos. He worked in salons and even held hairdressing parties after hours at his home. Following one of these parties in 1964, his friend Sally was found murdered, with Divine being the primary suspect in what local papers referred to as “The Hairdressing Party Mystery.” He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but it gave Divine his first taste of something that would fuel the rest of his career: notoriety.
The incongruity of his humble suburban upbringing with his emerging sexuality and embrace of Baltimore counterculture are at the heart of what makes his performance as Francine come to life. Divine uniquely understood how repressive the traditional middle-class family could be, and he wanted to explore that in a comedy that lampooned the ideals of the American Dream.
In Polyester, Francine exists as the paragon of the traditional American Dream. She has a husband with a steady job, two children, and a house filled with creature comforts. Within that outward appearance, however, lies a web of deception, murderous intentions, and abject sexual depravity that is at odds with Francine’s desires to live a normal life.
Rather than Divine being the driving force for Polyester’s shocking comedy, he uses Francine to embody the antithesis of what he had been known for in Waters’ past films. Divine still fills Francine with plenty of crass, but his performance isn’t built around his character’s grotesqueries like Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos. We root for Francine because she is the victim of the story, not the victimizer.
He plays Francine simply as a woman trying to navigate a world stacked against her. All she wants is love and stability, and she’s willing to do anything for it. And it’s in this emotional headspace that Divine, with a painted-on smile, finds Francine’s joy. Because despite all the vulgar things that happen to her, she has this resilient spirit that is completely enchanting.
Even though Francine is unique because of the tenderness Divine imbues into her, none of that warmth would work if it wasn’t contrasted by the exquisitely crafted camp layered into his character’s most manic moments.
Much of Polyester’s humor comes from it being a satire of female-focused exploitation films from the 1950s that were centered on disillusioned housewives indulging in the sins of life. Throughout the film, we watch Francine hit rock bottom after rock bottom, abusing alcohol to help her cope with living with a verbally abusive husband, a delinquent daughter, and a foot-stomping son.
As her life spins further out of control, Divine ratchets up his commitment to dynamically expressing Francine’s manic mood swings. In the film’s finale, after Francine discovers that her new husband, Todd, is sleeping with her mother, she has a complete nervous breakdown, manically stroking her hair as she sinks to the ground, blubbering nonsense as she’s forced to become a human footstool. It’s over the top in the way you’d expect from a performer like Divine, but we can appreciate this moment’s hilariously overwrought melodrama even more because he humanized Francine so well in the film’s opening acts.
Before his death in 1988, Divine desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, especially in male roles. He only had the chance to play four male characters in his career, two of which were for John Waters — in Female Trouble and Hairspray — one for Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind, and the last, Out of the Dark, was released posthumously in 1989. But I think Divine heartily proved himself as a serious actor with his work in Polyester.
Francine allowed audiences to clearly see the true range he possessed, removed from much of the debauchery and garishness that he had been known for. Polyester is still filled with Waters’ signature brand of shock, but regardless of the high camp baked into Divine’s performance, he still manages to break our hearts in a way the actresses he was satirizing never could.
Divine may have been known for absurd characters, but it’s really his genuine love of relishing in the outrageous that makes him such an incredibly fun actor to watch. With his performance in Polyester, we were treated to a different dimension of his talent. One that proved he was so much more than the stomach-churning extremes to which he was willing to go.