For the second year in a row, one of John Waters’ Baltimore-centric movies has been added to the prestigious National Film Registry of the U. S. Library of Congress.
Last year it was “Pink Flamingos,” named just before the 50th anniversary of its release in March of 1972, the first film by Waters to make the list.
This year it’s the original version of “Hairspray,” Waters’ story of a plus-sized Baltimore teenager and her friends who integrate a local TV dance show in 1962.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced today that the 1988 film starring Ricki Lake, Jerry Stiller, Mink Stole and the late Harris Glenn Milstead, also known as Divine, was one of 25 films added this year to the National Film Registry, out of 6,865 titles submitted by the public for consideration.
Hayden also announced that a second work with a Baltimore connection, “Cab Calloway Home Movies (1948-1951),” was added to the Registry. Shot in 16 millimeter in both black and white and color, the Cabell “Cab” Calloway III Collection features footage of the Baltimore-born singer, bandleader and actor, along with his family and friends at home and on travels in North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean.
The latest additions bring to 850 the number of films in the Registry, a list of motion pictures selected for their “cultural, historic or aesthetic importance” to be preserved as part of the nation’s film heritage. “Hairspray” and “Cab Calloway Home Movies” are two of the 15 films this year that were directed or co-directed by filmmakers of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Other National Film Registry additions for 2022 include Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man;” Disney’s “The Little Mermaid;” Brian De Palma’s adaptation of “Carrie;” director Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally;” and the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“Films have become absolutely central to American culture by helping tell our national story for more than 125 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We are proud to add 25 more films by a group of vibrant and diverse filmmakers to the National Film Registry as we preserve our cinematic heritage.”
In an email message after the announcement, Waters thanked the Library of Congress.
“It is a great un-ironic honor to have ‘Hairspray’ selected for the National Film Registry,” he said. “The original ad campaign for the film read, ‘Their hair was perfect but the world was a mess.’ Now MY world is perfect and I thank the Library of Congress for their exquisite taste and sense of humor.”
The 1988 version of “Hairspray” was the first of several iterations of the show, which Waters wrote and directed. It was followed by a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical production; a film starring John Travolta in 2007; a live TV version in 2016; more than one national touring production; and countless high school and middle school productions.
In a description of the 1988 film, the Library of Congress called it “John Waters’ most mainstream film, an irresistible look at Baltimore’s teen dance scene in 1962, as well as a moving plea for racial integration.”
While it was his first movie to get a PG rating, the library said, “no film by John Waters fits neatly into a cut-and-dried mold, not even a film gaining a wider audience like ‘Hairspray.’”
The library noted that the version with Lake playing Tracy Turnblad “wasn’t a huge success at first” but went on to have “a life of its own.” It said Lake’s performance as the ‘pleasantly plump’ teen misfit…gave the nation a cultural marker about acceptance for plus-sized women that reverberates to this day: The heavyset girl could win the dance contest and land the good-looking guy.”
Other cast members included Debbie Harry; Sonny Bono; Josh Charles; Ric Ocasek; Pia Zadora; Michael St. Gerard; and Waters himself. Released by New Line Cinema, it ended up grossing about $8.3 million on a budget of $2.7 million plus prints and advertising.
In a video message on the Library of Congress website, Waters, 76, said people still come up to him because of “Hairspray.”
“Even if you don’t like the movie, it…made it possible for big girls to realize they could be the star and they could get the guy in the movie and they felt good about themselves,” he said. “I know that because, wherever I go, big women try to hug me.”
Waters recalled that not many people auditioned for the role of Tracy Turnblad in the 1980s.
“Very few besides Ricki Lake showed up” to the casting call, he said. “Years later, when NBC made their TV version, they advertised for Tracy Turnblad. There was a line of ample girls that went all the way around the block.”
“It was groundbreaking,” Lake said in the video. “Looking back on it, to be the ingenue and to be 200 pounds and to be that girl that people actually do believe she legitimately won that dance contest and legitimately won that guy, that’s one of the things that I think does stand the test of these years and holds up with all the different iterations of this film and this character.
“It’s important,” she continued. “I think representation matters and I think it’s really, really meaningful to so many to see this girl that’s not the typical ingenue win…I love that message, and I love that I got to be that girl sending out that message.”
This is so exciting! #hairspray is being added to @librarycongress! 🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉#johnwaters #tracyturnblad ♥️ https://t.co/aWtiJBBVy9 — Ricki Lake (@RickiLake) December 14, 2022
Waters has called “Hairspray” the “gift that keeps on giving” because it has had so many versions. It was based on his memories of “The Buddy Deane Show,” a TV dance party broadcast only in Baltimore.
“All you need is one really good idea,” he wrote in his 2019 book of essays, “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.” “And, boy, a fat white girl fighting for racial integration was it!…Making Hairspray was one of the happiest times of my life.”
Waters notes that he will always have mixed feelings about the movie because Divine, who played Edna Turnblad and was his good friend and muse, died of a heart attack shortly after its premiere at the Senator Theatre.
“I’m still shocked to this day that he’s gone,” Waters wrote in 2019. “He was only forty-two years old. My friends’ children are older than that today…It was hard for me to care much about the box office after Divine’s final exit.”
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will present a television special about this year’s choices on December 27 at 8 p.m. A complete list of this year’s additions can be found at loc.gov/film.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from John Waters.
Great achievement for John and all the Buddy Deane committee members.
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