Three decades later, “Hairspray” holding firm

A local film festival is honoring filmmaker John Waters and the late performer Divine with a special screening of “Hairspray” for the movie’s 30th anniversary.

The iconic film made discussions on race, body positivity and gay culture more palatable to mainstream audiences.

“Hairspray snuck in and became mainstream,” the director told PGN. “It changed something. It made its point for gay marriage, integration and multiracial dating. It gave acceptance to fat girls. It’s one of the first movies that was for fat liberation.”

John Waters’ most commercially successful film, “Hairspray,” premiered in 1988 and told the story of how racial discrimination, specifically through the lens of pop culture, shaped the lives of young people in the 1960s. The movie follows Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) and her best friend as they audition for “The Corny Collins Show,” a popular Baltimore teenage dance show (based on the real-life Baltimore-based “Buddy Deane Show”). Turnblad becomes a hero when she fights fatphobia and makes it onto the show, where she champions racial integration on live television.

“Hairspray” was inspired by “The Nicest Kids in Town,” a short essay Waters wrote in his book “Shock Value” (1981). The essay chronicles Waters’ love and obsession with the dance crazes and behind-the-scenes drama and gossip he saw on “The Buddy Deane Show.” The success of the movie spawned an equally successful Broadway play of the same name in 2002, as well as  a remake of the movie in 2007, which grossed more than $200 million internationally.

The film “took what some people might consider a disadvantage and turned it into a style, and that’s what all of my movies are about,” Waters said.

He added that “Hairspray” is a comedy hidden as “an activist movie in disguise” and is “the only radical movie that I’ve ever made.”

“I try to always toe the thin line of what you can get away with and trying to push things that even I’m unsure of. The only way you change somebody’s mind is to make them laugh. You make them laugh, they’ll listen.”

The Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival — an alternative festival that primarily features horror and sci-fi films — will host the screening Sept. 5 at the Proscenium Theater.

PUFF codirectors Alex Gardner and Madeleine Koestner chose the film as the retro screening to open the festival’s third year. The screening also couples as a fundraiser for the William Way LGBT Community Center, with 25 percent of ticket sales going to the center. One-hundred percent of the proceeds from the screening’s raffle, featuring autographed John Waters merchandise, also will go to William Way.

The screening is taking place in collaboration with Cinema Ray, a nonprofit film organization. Allison Silverman, Cinema Ray president, said she wanted to honor the anniversary of Waters’ film as well as recognize the 30th anniversary of the death of Harris Glenn Milstead, the drag-queen performer better known by his stage name, Divine. He played Turnblad’s mother, Edna, in “Hairspray.” Divine died from cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart, two weeks after the movie’s premiere in 1988.

Waters had a close friendship with the performer. “It’s still shocking that [Divine’s] gone. He “was such a big part of my life,” Waters said.

The director said he plans to reunite with his late friend in “Disgraceland,” the cemetery in Baltimore where Divine’s grave is located. Waters told PGN he nicknamed the location Disgraceland after he and some of Divine’s other close friends bought grave plots in the same cemetery.

Elizabeth Coffey — who worked closely with the director during the early stages of his career — worked alongside Divine in Waters’ 1972 film “Pink Flamingos.” She described the performer as being the “beautiful man” who taught Ricki Lake how to walk in high heels.

“He was a combination of brilliant, kind and sassy. He was a sweet man. He was a riot and he loved to have high tea,” said Coffey. “Ultimately, playing that character took a great toll on him. Being the character Divine had to be difficult, but he was so good at it.” 

The 30th-anniversary screening of “Hairspray” takes place Sept. 5 at The Proscenium Theater at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. To purchase tickets, visit

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