Released in 1972, Pink Flamingos is a cult classic directed by John Waters and is widely considered to be one of the most outrageous and transgressive films of its time. The film stars Divine, a drag performer, as Babs Johnson, the "filthiest person alive." Babs and her eccentric family must defend their title against Connie and Raymond Marble (played by Mink Stole and David Lochary), who are trying to steal it from them. The film is filled with melodramatic acting, lengthy monologues (yes, even from the background characters), shocking displays of the human body, and at times very taboo subjects. Nowadays, the film is mostly known for the film’s finale where Babs Johnson eats dog feces as an ultimate display of her filth and for being on Tier 3 of the Disturbing Movie Iceberg.
Despite discomfort mainstream audiences may find watching this film, it has stood the test of time and remains popular amongst queers, punks, movie-buffs, and self-proclaimed edge-lords. But what is it about this film known for a drag queen eating doggy-doo that gives it such a large fan-base? In this review, I hope to highlight the admirable aspects of Waters’s cult classic Pink Flamingos and why this writer personally finds inspiration within Waters’s catalog of technicolor filth.
Upon first glance of the film, audiences can plainly see the low-budget Waters had to make this production. Waters admits to the tight budget he has in the DVD’s after credits interview, stating that he could not even afford to feed his crew on production days. The iconic pink and black trailer which Babs and her family reside in looks as if the wrong gust of wind could blow it over (not to mention, the sound of crackling paper and pop of cheap wood as the trailer burns later in the film). The windows are not windows, rather plastic sheets that move with the brittle Baltimore air. As the film continues, we see many of the settings are either on location around downtown Baltimore or within crew members’ homes. This “made from scratch” feel is highlighted best early in the film as Babs parades around the streets of Baltimore. Here, the audience not only gets to see the beautiful reactions of real Baltimore citizens as Babs dances down the sidewalk, but also a glimpse into Waters’s problem solving mind as a director.
As Babs parades the camera follows her profile from the street, moving at her same pace as if walking with her. Here, audiences are often able to see the frame of a car window within the shots. Waters had a vision for this scene and was able to use anything available to make it happen. He may not have had a dolly, or the ability to rent one, but he did have a car that could be used to film this specific shot Babs’s day out on the town. For young filmmakers, I believe this moment (and others like it in more of Waters’s early work) is very special and speaks volumes despite being such a minute detail. Waters worked with anything available to him to make his vision come true. He didn’t have the fanciest equipment, there may have been moments where there was no budget at all, yet somehow he still managed to write, direct, and edit his own films because that is exactly how passionate he was. It seems as if despite not having much, he did not let anything get in the way of his visions.
As a longtime viewer of Waters’s films, I believe one important aspect that makes his stories so memorable is his skill at writing dialog. There are specific staples that make a Waters film so recognizable and significant, aside from the ever-present actress Edith Massey. Waters crafts a story and string of dialog like no one else. Particularly, I find that there’s something in his writing which is unashamed, uncensored, guttural, and passionate. At moments, it feels as though his characters say the secretive things most are afraid to admit to thinking themselves. Throughout Pink Flamingos much of the dialog is crude, harsh, unforgiving, shocking, yet hilarious. For example, during the film’s falling action Babs and her son Crackers (played by Danny Mills) break into the Marbles’ home to contaminate it with their own “real” filth. As Babs and Crackers find the bedroom, Crackers asks his mother what she thinks they do in there. Babs responds, "Connie probably takes Raymond’s little peanut of a cock between her brittle, chapped lips and then scrapes her ugly, decayed teeth up and down on it while asshole Raymond thinks he’s getting the best head on the East Coast."
However, as cruel as the characters can be, they can be equally as intense in their passion. Earlier in the film Connie and Raymond are shown naked in bed making love by licking each other’s feet. During this display of love, Connie declares to her husband, “Raymond, I love you more than my own filth, more than my hair color. I love you more than the sound of bones breaking, more than a death rattle.” Raymond responds by giving Connie the same strange proclamations of his love for her: “I love you more than the sound of babies crying, the sound of dogs dying.” Everything about this scene is meant to be strange and uncomfortable to the audience, yet at the same time there’s a twisted sweetness about the Marbles’ association of love and melancholy – perhaps that it brings an unconventional view of harmony to the table. They were made perfectly disgusting for one another – so in a film about obscenities Waters still finds the time to highlight basic human wants and needs such as love.
This compassion that such heinous characters can have is not limited to the Marble family as Babs and her family showcase love and understanding to one another, too. Particularly towards Babs’s mother Edie (played by Edith Massey) who is seen as being mentally unwell and regularly panics that her Eggman will never show to sell her more eggs. While Babs is frequently annoyed by her mother’s crying, Babs’s traveling partner Cotton (played by Mary Vivian Pearce) is often found soothing Edie. Babs is not completely heartless to her mother as later she comforts and assures Edie that “chickens are plentiful” and the world will not be running out of chickens and eggs any time soon. Edie also becomes the only character to have a specific love arc within the film between her and the Eggman which ends in a happy marriage.
Like what will more than likely be the majority of films reviewed on this blog – this film is not for every audience. It does not cater to everyone’s tastes, and if you’re the type of viewer who cannot handle gross content I do not recommend it. However, if you have a strong stomach, a high tolerance for disturbed content, or just grew up scarred and calloused by the internet, I highly recommend viewing it. Although it’s wedged into the disturbing movie hole, I find that it has much more to offer than just it’s shock value as it delves into discussing and commentating on broader topics, some of which I did not discuss here such as chasing the American Dream and what people will do for notoriety and fame. Additionally, Pink Flamingos is a legendary film within queer communities for its use of iconic queer looks such as shaved eyebrows, Manic Panic’ed hair, the drag persona of Divine, and insane wardrobe choices. The director and cast themselves are also, in some way or another, all a part of Baltimore’s early queer scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s making Pink Flamingos a strong part of gay history.
Overall, below the surface of the film’s disturbing nature I find there is something which could be gained from experiencing Pink Flamingos. Waters has a very unique way of storytelling and writing which I have found other directors in this disturbing genre attempt very poorly. One large reason I believe Waters stands out among the rest is his consistent use of comedy and his embrace of the ridiculous. There’s a lot for a mainstream viewer to be shocked about in this film, and contrary to popular belief I do not think the dog poop is the most shocking scene for what this film has to offer. To name a few other topics Pink Flamingos covers there are sex slaves regularly raped for a “baby ring”, a man attempting to prolapse, incest, and, what I find to be the most shocking, live chickens being used and murdered during one of the sex scenes. One might believe a film with content such as this should not be funny, yet it’s one of the funniest films I’ve ever enjoyed due to the dialog and melodramatic cast. This, I believe, is what draws the line between enjoyable disturbing cinema and dull disturbing cinema that tries too hard to be shocking and takes itself too seriously. An example I often use to demonstrate this is the infamous A Serbian Film (2010, dir. Srdjan Spasojevic) which takes its desire to be disgusting so seriously that it feels boring, dull, lacking substance, and overall comes across as a 12 year old boy’s edge-lord fantasy. With Waters’s films, he always offers the viewer more than merely disturbing content on its own – there is real care put into his productions.
I give Pink Flamingos 4 out of 5 coffins.
It’s a cult classic for a reason and I always love to see someone’s first reaction to it. However, it is by far not even my favorite of John Waters’s films. There are a few topics Pink Flamingos makes well-enough commentary on to make an argument for. However, if you’re looking for a film by Waters that displays some of his best commentary about real world topics I recommend his 1977 film Desperate Living. It's even more outrageous, disgusting, and filthy -- and I hope to write a review on it one day as well.
Pink Flamingos is not available on any streaming platform but can be purchased via DVD or Blu-Ray here