Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Recommended? It’s complicated
Let’s say Cry-Baby wasn’t a movie. Let’s say it was a layer-cake. One of those candy-coated confections that give kids sugar rushes at birthday parties. Hopped up, quick witted, fun with a dash of teen angst. Bad boy Cry-Baby Walker woos good girl Allison in faded Technicolor, making fun of polio vaccinations, air raids and anti-smoking campaigns along the way. To music! (Music!) What’s not to love?
Except, oops, Waters swapped out flour for subtext, slipping in half-hidden subplots that take on race, class, and beauty norms. You bite down and realize the cake’s rich, marbled inside is really microwave meatloaf studded with broken glass. It’s probably good that you’re eating broken glass (metaphorically speaking, of course), because you sure are learning something. The problem is, most people just scrape off the icing and call it quits.
Hatchetface is never called ugly, nor denied romantic attention.
Except, for example, children. Children are really smart. My friend B, now all grown up, shared a recollection with me. It cuts right to the heart of Cry-Baby.
“We had this movie on VHS growing up and would re-enact scenes from it,” he said, “My cousins and I would lick knives and say, ‘Sometimes good girls get . . . cut.’ We also had an ugly cat named Hatchet Face.”
Hatchet Face is Waters’ knife-licking bad girl with a strange face and outrageous demeanor. She isn’t popular with the critics, at least not the ones whose reviews are still accessible on the internet (Cry-Baby did come out in 1990, after all). Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, calls Hatchet Face a “hideously contorted floozy” who is “too frightening to be funny.” A Rolling Stone review from the same year mentions Hatchet Face only once, in passing, and Roger Ebert doesn’t bring her up at all. The reviewers focus on Johnny Depp, the 1950s, and Waters tendency to be campy and overwrought—not noticing, or caring about, Hatchet Face’s key role in the film. Which is confusing, because throughout Cry-Baby, Hatchet’s right there, throwing beauty norms and stereotypes back in viewers’ faces. Hard.
It’s rumored that Waters originally wrote the part for his muse, Baltimore drag queen Divine, but Divine passed away before filming began. In the casting call for Hatchet Face, the auteur looked for someone with “the body of Jayne Mansfield and the face of Margaret Hamilton…[and] nobody, but nobody, gives her grief.” Waters got what he wanted. Kim McGuire plays the part monstrously–that is to say, perfectly–boogeying the night away, sloppily kissing her beau, Milton, and contorting her face in to all sorts of incredible shapes. She’s never called ugly, nor denied the romantic attention that pretty-faced good girl Allison and saucy, conventionally attractive Wanda Woodward receive (Cry-Baby’s pregnant, fierce sister Pepper also has an unconventional look and demeanor and, at the end of the film, is proposed to by a swooning suitor). When the judge makes a comment about Hatchet Face’s looks during the courtroom scene, she yells back, “There’s nothing the matter with my face, I got character!”
Many of freaks and queers who live on the margins of polite society–both socially and aesthetically–love her. My friend A, who counts Cry-Baby among her favorite films, loves that Hatchet-Face owns her ugliness and uses it to her advantage, scaring squares and snarling at judges.
“That kind of ownership over the things society hates about you is really important,” A told me, “She’s telling society they can eat it. And Milton’s love of Hatchet Face’s ugliness is profound because it implicates him as a freak and an outcast more than if he were just a good looking dude who happens to drink and drive fast cars.”
Take that, Janet Maslin.
Hatchet Face is mentioned by reviewers mostly in passing; race and racism don’t get mentioned at all. It’s surprising, because commentary on race–and class–undergird much of the film.
Racism in Cry-Baby cleaves along class lines: The well-off, college-bound Squares shudder at the thought of listening to black music. The Drapes–working-class Greasers–favor genres like doo wop, a precursor to rock n’ roll that originated in African-American communities. While all the Squares in the film are white, black Drapes dance and sing alongside Cry-Baby and his crew. But the white Drapes also display Confederate-imagery. While Squares hide their racism under deceptive layers of politeness and charm, the white Drapes let theirs hang out. This racism co-exists, incongruously, alongside their friendliness with black Drapes.
The Confederate flag is one of the most prominent (and disturbing) images in the film. It’s flown on stage at the Turkey Point Swim Club, the pool and dance hall that the Squares nickname “The Redneck Riviera.” In one scene, Ramona Rickettes, purveyor of stolen auto parts, Turkey Point owner-operator and Cry-Baby’s grandmother, gives Pepper a cradle emblazoned with the Stars and Bars.
Ramona Rickettes is a tough talking, rockabilly redneck sort of lady–the kind of person I want to love, except that I don’t, because her badass demeanor is undermined by racist motives and posturing. Early on in the film, she sells an overpriced muffler to Dupree, a black Drape. When he complains about the price, she asks if he’d rather shop at Sears. In 1950s Baltimore, his consumer options would have been limited. Dupree’s blackness makes him exploitable, and while Ramona is friendly to him, she’s more concerned with making a buck than with equality. Even Ramona’s costuming alludes to the Confederacy: she wears a gray kepi—the type of hat worn by soldiers during the Civil War—a gray jumpsuit and a low-slung bullet belt.
About halfway through the film, the Squares attack a dance at Turkey Point, vandalizing Drape cars and setting Cry-Baby’s beloved motorcycle on fire. The cops show up and—surprise!—haul the Drapes off to jail. While the white Drapes are taken away in a paddy wagon, the black Drapes are corralled in to a truck bed surrounded by a makeshift fence of scrap wood and chicken wire.
The following day, Cry-Baby’s all-white gang is released to parental custody, and a big deal is made out of the news that Cry-Baby will have to serve time in juvenile hall. But the black Drapes haven’t been released, and no bones are made about it. They’re all in the jail house with Cry-Baby, dancing and singing about Cry-Baby’s love for Allison and how darn unfair it is that he has to be locked up. Dupree helps Cry-Baby attempt an escape, but doesn’t try to break out himself. Likewise, two black prisoners help Hatchet Face and Milton (who fail to break Cry-Baby out of juvie and end up stuck on the inside) sneak out in the back of a garbage truck. The escape looks remarkably easy, and I’m left wondering why the two prisoners don’t try the stunt, as well. Is it because, for them, there would be greater consequences?
Allison’s pleadings ultimately convince the judge to release Cry-Baby. Dupree and the other black Drapes remain incarcerated. This feels like a salient bit of subtext. In 2015–twenty five years after the film was release and six decades after its 1950s setting–people of color are still imprisoned disproportionately and shot by police in disturbing numbers. But it’s sometimes hard to tell if white-dude Waters is trying to send a message or just be shocking, and even if he is saying something nuanced about racism, the point has pretty much been missed.
Racism’s most obvious incarnation in the film, the Confederate flag, isn’t mentioned in reviews. The flag’s impossible to miss: it appears in the film multiple times, and (while sometimes poorly excused as an icon of white, working-class pride) is a loaded symbol that’s emblematic of a traumatic history of slavery and racism. Sadly, Maslin, Ebert, and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers—writing for important publications with wide audiences—simply chose to ignore it.
Cloudy, confusing, and lost on many audiences, Waters might have buried the subtext in Cry-Baby too deep for it to be useful. Or, perhaps, it’s the viewers fault; too many filtered the film through art house white, straight American worldviews and drained it of any critical power. But Waters would have been well-served by making the commentary just a little more obvious. By obscuring it behind a quirky love story and bouncy musical numbers, the film’s satire starts to look like bad taste.