The Sundance Channel has screened John Waters’ underappreciated 2004 comedy “A Dirty Shame” several times over the past month. (Another showing is scheduled January 31). Unfortunately, they have so far played the “neuter” version – the heavily redubbed copy that once-upon-a-time rental powerhouse Blockbuster would only carry at the time of the DVD release – rather than the original theatrical cut that got slapped with an NC-17. The neuter version is so lame it’s unwatchable, at times rendered nonsensical from the editing.
A friend and John Waters fan urged me to buy a cheap copy of the NC-17 version. I downloaded a ten buck file from Amazon, and I have to say – what a difference a whole bunch of dirty words and the occasional flash of full frontal nudity makes. The dirtiest version of “A Dirty Shame” hilariously blends Waters’ almost clinical interest in sexual fetishes with his boundless affection for outsiders, working-class eccentrics, and 1950s novelty pop tunes. The movie is slow to get going and has no real plot, but a cast of enthusiastic actors with top-shelf comic timing delivers an endless barrage of the writer-director’s smutty but very quotable lines.
Before you go to the trouble of checking out the “hardcore” version, you should probably know my take on Waters’ films. My three favorites are “Female Trouble,” “Polyester,” and “Hairspray,” with “Shame” now closing in. I think “Pink Flamingos” is his most overrated, and “Cecil B. Demented” is hands down his worst. I love Divine and Edith Massey, but Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Cookie Mueller don’t do much for me. I happen to think Waters’ best early scripts would’ve benefited from the technical polish and professional actors he later used on all his work. If this hews closely to your opinions, then “A Dirty Shame” might be for you.
After Kathleen Turner nearly ruined “Serial Mom” with her condescending performance, the great Tracey Ullman proves that an actress can do and say every freaky thing John Waters asks of her and somehow come out looking more dignified. (The third season of Ullman’s virtuosic Showtime sketch show ”State of the Union” is about to begin, BTW). Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a sexually frigid woman whose daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) performs under the name “Ursula Udders” at biker bars after getting ludicrously big breast implants. Sylvia’s perpetually offended mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepard from “The Sopranos,” who is tearfully funny here) runs a convenience store and organizes a decency rally to protest the bears, lesbians, swingers, flashers, and assorted fetishists taking over the neighborhood. Sylvia gets a head concussion and becomes a rampaging sex addict as well as the twelfth disciple of – I kid you not — a Christ-like libertine named Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who’s determined to create a new sex act that will save humankind.
The major pleasures of “A Dirty Shame” are its memorable one liners delivered memorably, and they are plentiful: “Don’t you find it strange that every man in this neighborhood has a penis?” “Sylvia, you have what doctors call ‘a runaway vagina.’” “Someone left a dildo in my bird bath.” “It’s diversity, not depravity.” “I’m no prude. I married an Italian.” “My husband is Viagravated. He wants it every night.”/”He has no right to be that hard!” “You were convicted of nude loitering, nude and disorderly conduct, nude drunken driving…”/”I was not drunk, I was on pills!”
Again, go for the original NC-17 version, not the heavily edited dreck that’s playing on Sundance. And, as usual, only confirmed Waters fans should apply.