Cry-Baby

You could say that underground filmmaker John Waters, Baltimore's sickest puppy, has sold out. Cry-Baby, his eleventh film, is an $8 million teen musical and, yikes, it's got a PG-13 rating. You could say that Waters already compromised his midnight-movie reputation when his last two films, Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), hit mainstream pay dirt. You could also say that hiring a pretty-boy star for Cry-Baby – Johnny Depp of television's 21 Jump Street – is the ultimate bow to commerce. But the movie, which finds the writer-director at his most playfully demented, says otherwise. Waters's bad taste is unassailable. The subversive comic thrust of Cry-Baby shows he simply had to find new ways to channel his baser instincts. The wizard of odd still runs amok.

In his early cheapo flicks (Eat Your Makeup, Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs), Waters delighted in breaking taboos. He and his diva, Harris Glenn Milstead, the 300-pound drag queen known as Divine, scored a new high in low with Pink Flamingos (1972), in which Divine munched on dog doo. But many of Waters's kinks were soon co-opted by the mainstream: Dustin Hoffman did drag in Tootsie; Kathleen Turner sucked toes in Crimes of Passion; Glenn Close boiled a kid's pet bunny in Fatal Attraction; and Steven Spielberg had a man's heart yanked out in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was getting harder to shock an audience.

Waters did it by giving viewers the last thing they'd expect: a clean act. In Hairspray, he cast Divine as a devoted wife and mother. No four-letter words, no kinky sex, no dog doo. The new, assimilated Divine made society look more twisted than ever, which is exactly what Waters wanted. Then Milstead died, leaving Waters bereft of the figure who best personified his view of a world gone mad.

In Cry-Baby, set in 1954, Waters again goes against the grain. Not only is the leading man a looker, but he also wears pants instead of a dress. Waters adopts conventions solely to undermine them. Depp stars as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, a singing, crotch-scratching biker and Elvis look-alike (James Intveld does his vocals). Amy Locane, a beauty from TV soaps (One Life to Live and Loving), Plays Allison Vernon-Williams, a singing, flirty virgin and society deb whom Cry-Baby loves (Rachel Sweet does her vocals). In me local parlance, he's a drape and she's a square. They might be out of Romeo and Juliet or Grease – anything but Waters.

That's the point Waters means to upturn our expectations. Director of photography David Insley gives the film a trashy gloss, but dark psychological currents run underneath. Happily, they're also good for giggles. Cry-Baby and Allison are orphans. His parents died in the electric chair (he's been weeping ever since), hers in an air disaster (they took separate planes, but both crashed).

Allison's rich grandmother, crisply skewered by Polly Bergen, wants to keep the lovers apart. So does Allison's straight-arrow boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer, Norman's son), who stages a fight that gets Cry-Baby sent to reform school. Mailer plays Baldwin like a malevolent Pat Boone. The squares are clean-cut, racist and reactionary – everything Waters hates. You can tell the heroes from the villains by their taste in music. Cry-Baby prefers rockabilly; Baldwin's taste runs to "Mister Sandman." The film's songs, a mixture of old and new, are played straight. The result is hilarious, especially Cry-Baby's jail-house anthem, "Doin' Time for Bein' Young."

The film's rebel underdogs may be physically or mentally deficient, but any nonconformist is a winner to Waters. Cry-Baby's grandmother, Ramona (Susan Tyrrell), has a boyfriend named Belvedere (a wonderful Iggy Pop) who bathes in a tub in his yard. Cry-Baby's blimpish unwed sister, Pepper (Ricki Lake), is pregnant with a third child. Assisted by the sluttish Wanda (former teen porn star Traci Lords) and the aptly named Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire), Pepper does a bad-girl make-over on Allison.

Lust is in the air when Cry-Baby takes his girl to the park. "Kiss me hard," he says to Allison, who doesn't know how. So Cry-Baby licks her tongue as if it were an all-day sucker. At this point, Waters cuts to a sea of other lovers flicking their tongues into one another's mouths with slurpy abandon. In the AIDS era, Waters has made a Fifties film in which most of the cast exchanges bodily fluids. Judging from the chorus of groans at the screening I attended, the mischievous Waters achieved the desired effect.

There are other vintage Waters grossouts: Allison collects a jarful of her tears, then chugs it down; Pepper visits a foundling home in which the kids do household chores in decorated cages; and Cry-Baby winds up on the roof of his car during a "chicken" race while Pepper gives birth noisily in the back seat.

Best of all are the flabbergasting cameos: Heiress and former revolutionary Patricia Hearst makes her acting debut as Lords's mother, a housewife and school crossing guard who has never heard the word fuck. Hearst's husband is played by David Nelson, the surviving son of Ozzie and Harriet. A balding Troy Donahue, the former teen idol, shows up with a chain-smoking wife (Mink Stole) in an iron lung. And Joey Heatherton, Donahue's sexy costar in My Blood Runs Cold (1965), plays a religious fanatic who speaks in tongues. They're all awful and great fun. It's tawdry celebrity on the rampage. Waters revels in it.

In Cry-Baby, Waters has created a crackpot jamboree that captures the Fifties, then parodies and transcends the period; any resemblance to Nineties greed, prejudice and repression is intentional. At forty-three, Waters remains unrepentantly juvenile. It's his saving grace. What he can't fight, he ridicules. The mirror Waters holds up to the world is distorted, turning everyone into a grotesque. But we can still see ourselves in it And laugh.

From The Archives Issue 576: April 19, 1990