'Pink Flamingos' Gets Respectable — Except in Hicksville, New York

Thursday June 30, 2022

Divine's trailer from "Pink Flamingos" edited into a Hicksville, New York street. The film remains banned in the town.
Divine's trailer from "Pink Flamingos" edited into a Hicksville, New York street. The film remains banned in the town.  (Source:EDGE composite image)

It took 50 years for "Pink Flamingos" (and its auteur John Waters) to get respectability, but last December the National Film Registry deemed the film (described as "an exercise in Bad Taste") "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" to be earmarked for preservation by the Library of Congress.

"The Librarian of Congress makes the annual selections to the Registry after reviewing hundreds of titles nominated by the public and conferring with Library film curators and the distinguished members of the National Film Preservation Board," the site says, adding that for films to be included, they must be at least 10 years old.

Divine in "Pink Flamingos"
Divine in "Pink Flamingos"  (Source: IMDb)

Waters made the film in 1973 in his hometown of Baltimore for $10,000 as a send-up of a gangster film in which rival gangs vie for the title of being "filthiest people alive." One of them is led by Babs Johnson, played by Waters muse Divine in a career-making performance. "She lives with her mother Edie (Edith Massey), who dresses as a baby, sits in a crib and screams for eggs; her ghoulish lover Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce); and her son Crackers (Danny Mills), who, in a particularly gruesome moment, has sex with a woman while a live chicken is crushed to death between their two bodies," wrote The Conversation last year in a feature on the film.

The film is also being released by the prestigious Criterion Collection, where Waters' film will join the ranks of such out filmmakers as Pier Paulo Pasolini, Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in having their films on DVD. The company had previously released three other Waters films, "Multiple Maniacs," "Polyester," and "Female Trouble."

"I was just hoping that they would do this one to give the final seal of respectability to the most unrespectable film ever made!" Waters told Entertainment Weekly.

John Waters
John Waters  (Source: Associated Press)

But there is one New York town where it remains completely "unrespectable."

"Still, in Hicksville, New York, on Long Island, technically, if they ever show 'Pink Flamingos,' Bob Shaye, the head of New Line, and I can go to prison, because we signed a thing saying, if it ever played there we would go to prison. And I do believe 'Pink Flamingos' may have played in Hicksville. I don't know if I'm wanted by the police, but I never drive by that town in case," Waters said.

In some ways, Waters agrees with the film being too shocking for some. In its initial release, New Line sent vomit bags to some theaters showing the movie at midnight, and the swag is part of the Criterion packaging.

"Did anyone ever use it? I think I saw people puking in the theater, but I don't know if they ever used the bag or not," Waters deadpanned. "I think most people kept the bag as swag. The Criterion DVD has a facsimile of them, so you can get the barf bag. The Criterion one is awfully little. It would be like an anorexic puke. Maybe it's for a model."

In an interview with IndieWire, the 76-year-old writer and director said that instead of aging, he thought the film's new respectability is " pretty hilarious and great. So here's a movie that actually today is more offensive than it was when it came out, probably, with all the new touchiness, but at the same time, it still brings joy to people no matter what their politics are, in a way. That's what I'm so happy to be celebrating. I'm trying to talk about how always we use humor to win, not self-righteousness, not telling people they're stupid, not lecturing people. You have to make fun of yourself first, which I always did, and then you can make fun of others. But I've made a career of making fun of the rules in the outsider society that I live in and love, so I usually make fun of things I love."

The 50th anniversary edition of "Pink Flamingos" in 4K digital restoration by Waters and numerous additional features is available from the Criterion Collection. Click here for more information.