Polyester (film)

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Polyester ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Waters
Written byJohn Waters
Produced by
CinematographyDavid Insley
Edited byCharles Roggero
Music by
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • May 29, 1981 (1981-05-29)
Running time
86 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States

Polyester is a 1981 American comedy film directed, produced, and written by John Waters, and starring Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole. It satirizes the melodramatic genre of women's pictures, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk, whose work directly influenced this film, as well as suburban life in the early 1980s involving divorce, abortion, adultery, alcoholism, foot fetishism, and the religious right.

Polyester was filmed in Waters' native Baltimore, Maryland, as with many of his other films, and features a gimmick called Odorama, whereby viewers can smell what they see on screen using scratch and sniff cards, in a stylistic tribute to the work of William Castle, whose films typically featured attention-grabbing gimmicks.

Following Stunts, it was one of the first films that New Line Cinema produced.


Housewife Francine Fishpaw watches her upper-middle-class family's life crumble in their suburban Baltimore home. Her husband Elmer is a polyester-clad lout who owns an adult movie theater, causing anti-pornography protesters to picket the Fishpaws' house. Francine's Christian beliefs are also offended by the behavior of her children—Lu-Lu, her spoiled, promiscuous daughter, and Dexter, her delinquent, glue-sniffing son who derives sexual pleasure from stomping on women's feet.

Francine's cocaine-snorting mother La Rue, a class-conscious snob, compounds her troubles by robbing her daughter blind, constantly deriding her obesity, and berating her for befriending her former housecleaner, Cuddles Kovinsky, a simple-minded woman who tries to console Francine with "seize-the-day" bromides and has inherited a large sum of money from a very wealthy former employer.

After Francine discovers Elmer having an affair with his secretary, Sandra Sullivan, she confronts them during a motel tryst and demands a divorce. Francine then falls into alcoholism and depression, exacerbated by her children's behavior: Lu-Lu becomes pregnant by her degenerate boyfriend Bo-Bo Belsinger (Stiv Bators) and announces she is getting an abortion, and after Dexter is arrested at a supermarket for stomping on a woman's foot, the media reveal that he is the Baltimore Foot Stomper who has been serially attacking and terrorizing local women.

Lu-Lu goes to a family planning clinic for an abortion, but anti-abortion picketers harass her. She returns home and tries to induce a miscarriage, causing Francine to call an unwed mothers' home. Two nuns arrive, force Lu-Lu into the trunk of their car, and take her to a Catholic home for unwed mothers. Bo-Bo and his friend, who have come to trash the Fishpaw house on Halloween night, shoot La Rue, but she retrieves the gun and shoots Bo-Bo dead. After Lu-Lu flees the unwed mothers' home, she returns home to find Bo-Bo's dead body and is so distraught that she attempts suicide. Francine comes home and faints after witnessing her daughter's suicide attempt—and the apparent suicide by hanging of the family dog, Bonkers, based on a suicide note left near the dog's dangling body.

However, Francine's life soon starts to change. Dexter is released from jail, having been rehabilitated. Lu-Lu suffers a miscarriage from her suicide attempt and is contrite about her past, becoming an artistic flower child who embraces macramé. Francine quits drinking, confronts and rebukes her mother, and finds new romance with Todd Tomorrow. Todd proposes marriage to an elated Francine, but she soon discovers that Todd and La Rue are romantically involved and conspiring to embezzle her divorce settlement and drive her insane and sell her children into prostitution.

Elmer and Sandra break into the house to murder Francine, but Dexter and Lu-Lu kill them: Dexter steps on Sandra's foot, causing her to accidentally shoot Elmer, and Lu-Lu uses her macramé to strangle Sandra. When Cuddles and her German chauffeur and fiancé Heintz arrive, their car runs over La Rue and Todd, killing them. The film concludes with a happy ending for Francine, her children, and newlyweds Cuddles and Heintz.



Waters' usual troupe of actors, the Dreamlanders, played minor roles in Polyester compared to Waters' previous films Desperate Living, Female Trouble, and Pink Flamingos, which starred several Dreamlanders in major roles. Only two Dreamlanders, Divine and Edith Massey, received top billing in this film. Dreamlander perennials Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller, Sharon Niesp, Marina Melin, Susan Lowe, and Jean Hill played small roles in Polyester. While their parts are integral to the plot, they are much smaller compared to their earlier roles.

Principal photography for the film took place over the course of three weeks in October 1979.

Polyester was the first Waters film to skirt the mainstream, even garnering an R rating (his previous films were all unrated or rated X—the equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America's present-day NC-17 rating). The film was set in a middle-class suburb of Baltimore instead of its slums and bohemian neighborhoods, the setting of Waters' earlier films.


These are the only songs known to be in the film:[3]

  1. "Polyester" by Tab Hunter – words and music by Chris Stein and Debbie Harry
  2. "Be My Daddy's Baby (Lu-Lu's Theme)" by Michael Kamen – words and music by Harry and Kamen
  3. "The Best Thing" by Bill Murray – words and music by Harry and Kamen

Women's pictures[edit]

Polyester was a send-up of women's pictures, an exploitative genre of film that was popular from the 1950–60s and typically featured bored, unfulfilled, or otherwise troubled women, usually middle-aged suburban housewives, finding release or escape through the arrival of a handsome younger man. Women's pictures were typically hackneyed B-movies, but Waters specifically styled Polyester after the work of the director Douglas Sirk, making use of similar lighting and editing techniques, even using film equipment and movie-making techniques from Sirk's era.[citation needed]


Original German Odorama card for the film

Odors, especially Francine's particularly keen sense of smell, play an important role in the film. To highlight this, Waters designed Odorama, a "scratch-and-sniff" gimmick inspired by the work of William Castle and the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, which featured a device called Smell-O-Vision. Special cards with spots numbered 1 through 10 were distributed to audience members before the show, in the manner of 3D glasses. When a number flashed on the screen, viewers were to scratch and sniff the appropriate spot. Smells included the scent of flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass, and feces. For the first DVD release of the film the smell of glue was changed due to, as Waters states, "political correctness". The gimmick was advertised with the tag "It'll blow your nose!"[4]

After being prompted to scratch and sniff a bouquet of roses, viewers are subjected to a series of mostly foul-smelling odors, and thus fall victim to the director's prank.

The ten smells (developed by 3M per John Waters in the supplements section of the DVD release) are:

  • 1. Roses
  • 2. Flatulence (Natural ass)
  • 3. Model airplane glue
  • 4. Pizza
  • 5. Gasoline
  • 6. Skunk
  • 7. Natural gas
  • 8. New car smell
  • 9. Dirty shoes
  • 10. Air freshener

A video release omits the numbers flashing onscreen as well as the opening introduction explaining Odorama. This version, created by Lorimar-Telepictures, was shown on cable TV in the United States.

The Independent Film Channel released reproduction Odorama cards for John Waters film festivals in 1999.

Waters expressed his delight at having the film's audiences actually "pay to smell shit" on the commentary track of the film's 2004 DVD release.

Producers of Rugrats Go Wild (Paramount) used the Odorama name and logo in 2003, somewhat upsetting Waters when he learned that New Line Cinema had let the copyright lapse.[5][6]

The 2011 film Spy Kids: All the Time in the World uses a scratch and sniff card now called "Aromascope", which is advertised as providing the fourth dimension in its "4D" format.

The film was re-screened by Midnight Movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2011. The Odorama cards were recreated by Midnight Movies, Little Joe Magazine, and The Aroma Company to allow viewers to interact with the film as originally intended.

Critical response[edit]

Polyester received some good reviews from the mainstream press. Said Janet Maslin of The New York Times:

Ordinarily, Mr. Waters is not everyone's cup of tea — but Polyester, which opens today at the National and other theaters, is not Mr. Waters' ordinary movie. It's a very funny one, with a hip, stylized humor that extends beyond the usual limitations of his outlook. This time, the comic vision is so controlled and steady that Mr. Waters need not rely so heavily on the grotesque touches that make his other films such perennial favorites on the weekend Midnight Movie circuit. Here's one that can just as well be shown in the daytime.

The film currently holds a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 27 reviews.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

The 2000 single "Frontier Psychiatrist", by the Australian electronic music group The Avalanches, samples the film.[8]


  1. ^ "POLYESTER (X)". GTO Films & Video Ltd. British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  2. ^ "Polyester (1981) - Box office / business". Internet Movie Database. Amazon.com. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  3. ^ "Polyester (1981)". IMDb. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
  4. ^ Neil Gaiman, Kim Newman, Ghastly Beyond Belief, Arrow Books, 1985, ISBN 0-09-936830-7, p. 193
  5. ^ Waters, John (2006). The Simpsons The Complete Eighth Season DVD commentary for the episode "Homer's Phobia" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.
  6. ^ Waters, John (2006). This Filthy World (DVD). Red Envelope Entertainment.
  7. ^ Polyester at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ David James Young (October 15, 2020). "The Avalanches reflect on 20 years of 'Frontier Psychiatrist'". NME. BandLab Technologies. Archived from the original on October 15, 2020.

External links[edit]