Ricki Lake never in her wildest dreams thought she’d be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film Hairspray at the lofty Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I never thought the movie was going to come out, let alone have this lifespan. And for me to be alive 30 years later, for me to be turning 50 in two months … you know, it’s all kind of surreal,” she said.
Most of the film’s surviving stars, as well as its writer-director John Waters, gathered Monday at the Academy for a special screening of the film, hosted by Oscar-winning Barry Jenkins, the writer-director of Moonlight.
Jenkins was just 8 years old when the film was released, but he said his parents were big fans of the period comedy, set in 1962 Baltimore. It’s about a teen-dance TV show that is rocked when a short, plump dynamo — the adorable Tracy Turnblad — unseats Amber Von Tussle, the nasty blond beauty who long has been the reigning queen. Turmoil ensues when Tracy suggests producers stop limiting black dancers’ appearances and pushes for the show to be fully integrated.
Jenkins noted that Waters’ script is loosely based on real events.
“In real life, that show never integrated. It just went off the air rather than integrate,” Jenkins said. “I think John gives us this very happy, hopeful ending, by having the show integrate at the end of his version of the film. So I think, even in that, you see that he was trying to say that it is possible for us to come together.”
As for the film’s pro-integration message, Waters noted: “It was a sneak attack. It was a Trojan horse. It was the only radical movie I ever made, because it snuck in middle America. And they didn’t notice. I mean, they didn’t notice the message. Well, they did notice the message. But I’ve said that even racists like Hairspray.”
Before Hairspray, Waters had directed just a handful of features that earned him a cult following. But Hairspray was his breakthrough, marking his introduction to mainstream audiences. It also marked a breakthrough for American actor, singer and drag queen Divine, who portrayed Tracy’s mother Edna.
Divine died of complications from an enlarged heart just a little more than a week after the film’s wide release.
Blondie lead singer and Hairspray actress Debbie Harry remembered her co-star.
“Divine was very generous and relaxed and sort of soulful and there’s that soft voice,” Harry recalled. “And then we had to struggle during the scene of the exploding hair. And I had bruises on my arms. Mother was very strong!”
Hairspray featured a cameo appearance by recording artist and actress Pia Zadora, who said she wasn’t surprised by the film’s long life. It eventually was adapted into a Broadway musical, a musical feature, and a musical television production.
“I mean, John — you can’t deny this guy knows what the hell he’s doing,” Zadora said. “It was right. It was just right.”