Sub-Cult

Why John Waters' Cry-Baby Deserves More Attention

Nathan Rabin attempts to separate the art from the artist while rewatching this oddly touching ode to Eisenhower-era outsiders.

by | July 19, 2016 | Comments

 

When I first heard that Johnny Depp had been accused of domestic violence against soon-to-be ex-wife Amber Heard, my response was as human as it was idiotic. My brain cried out with clueless fanboy defiance, “No! That can’t be true! Ed Wood would never beat his wife! Edward Scissorhands would only accidentally harm a partner, due to his scissor-hands and whatnot! Cry-Baby would never throw an iPhone in anger (in part because he probably died decades before smartphones were introduced, but still)!”

It was dumb, but it was a natural response. It’s hard to care deeply about pop culture and not be invested in the totality of our favorite artists’ lives, on screen and off. My secondary awful yet human response to the domestic violence allegations was that I found them disturbing, but not as disturbing as they would have been if they’d come out 15 years ago, when Depp was still one of my favorite actors and not mired in bloated, joyless, excessively costumed self-parody.

I’m not proud to have thoughts like that, but it makes sense that we’d be more invested in the lives of artists we admire. If Chet Haze destroyed several entire hotel chains during a coke-and-hooker-heavy rampage that ended in a police shootout, I doubt anyone would be surprised — or care — with the possible exception of his family. Haze is a second-generation entitled baby-man screw-up. That’s what entitled baby-man screw ups do. But if Tom Hanks — beloved American, preeminent pop culture icon, and, to a much lesser extent, Chet Haze’s profoundly embarrassed father — were to do the same thing, I think we’d all be disappointed and horrified. This unexpected orgy of bad behavior would instantly and permanently change Hanks’ reputation for the worst.

Something similar to my initial reaction to the Depp news seems to be at play in the media. Online comments on stories about the divorce and domestic violence accusation are tilted disproportionately in Depp’s favor. Heard is demonized as an evil, scheming gold digger while Depp is defended as the innocent victim of a conscienceless schemer decades younger than him.

Watching Cry-Baby, you get a sense that Depp had attained a state of perfection that was inherently impossible to sustain.

It doesn’t help that Heard often plays femme fatale types while Depp has made himself and Disney a fortune playing lovable rogues. Domestic violence doesn’t fit with Depp’s persona, but it’s worth noting that he has had a series of personas over the course of his career. He began as a non-ironic bad boy with a heart of gold and teen idol on 21 Jump Street. Then he segued smartly into satire, independent film, and offbeat choices when he starred in the utterly charming 1990 musical comedy Cry-BabyJohn Waters’ loving and eminently re-watchable follow-up to his mainstream breakthrough Hairspray.

I suspect that Depp wouldn’t mind escaping the ugly mess of his personal and professional life and traveling back decades in time to the era of Cry-Baby, when he radiated all the promise in the world. The decades ahead would bring mo’ money, and with it, the requisite mo’ problems, and watching Cry-Baby, you get a sense that Depp had, physically at least, attained a state of perfection that was inherently impossible to sustain.

In Cry-Baby, Depp spoofs his 21 Jump Street persona as Cry-Baby Walker, a pouty-lipped, perfectly cheekboned heartbreaker who rules as the unofficial leader of the Drapes, a contingent of proud juvenile delinquents, outcasts, and ne’er do wells lovingly looked after by Ramona Ricketts (Susan Tyrell) and her partner Belvedere (Iggy Pop). They’re menaces to society, but because this is a John Waters film, they are also a wonderfully diverse and open-minded bunch that includes an African American gent with a towering pompadour, a pregnant woman, a woman nicknamed Hatchet Face for reasons that quickly become apparent, and even a pair of adorable children on hand as pint-sized mascots.

Cry-Baby is relentlessly pursued by Lenora (Kim Webb), a bosomy bad girl intent on ensnaring him in her man-trap, but he only has eyes for Alison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane), a good girl who undergoes a profound sexual awakening the moment she first sets eyes on him. Cry-Baby may be PG-13, but the smoldering looks Alison shoots Cry-Baby are strictly NC-17, and though Locane is lovely in a role that didn’t do anywhere near as much for her career as it should have, Depp is the one who is relentlessly sexualized, who is treated as eye candy as much as a flesh-and-blood human being. The camera doesn’t just love him; it obsesses over him in a way that would probably result in a restraining order if it were human. And Locane’s character is more than merely attracted to Cry-Baby; he seemingly keeps her in a state of perpetual erotic infatuation — and he does the same for the audience. As Cry-Baby Walker, Depp is sex incarnate, a gorgeous creature who is as pretty as a girl but blessed with a rugged masculinity.

In Waters’ world, sex is not dirty or corrupt. Sex is innocent. Sex is joyful. Sex is the essence of being young and alive.

The film honestly and lovingly captures the hormonal haze of adolescence and the sexual yearning behind so much of our fetishization of 1950s and 1960s greaser culture. Yet in Waters’ world, at least, sex is not dirty or corrupt or even particularly naughty. Sex is innocent. Sex is joyful. Sex is the essence of being young and alive. Cry-Baby is, on some level, an extended riff on Grease, the big difference being that Grease has a reputation as clean-cut, wholesome Americana but is actually incredibly smutty, while Cry-Baby  professes to be naughty and ribald but is surprisingly wholesome underneath.

Waters’ affection for the days of his youth is refreshing largely because it is devoid of the maudlin, sentimental phoniness that defines most nostalgia, particularly of the 1950s variety. There’s an underlying sincerity to his yearning for a simpler past as well as an admirable desire to recreate the Eisenhower era in his own idiosyncratic image.

The film epitomizes what makes Waters such a weirdly inclusive and beloved figure. In the eternal battle of the slobs and snobs, Waters’ sympathies will always be with the slobs. Hell, he even gives his greasers and punks and rockabilly no-hopers a veritable wonderland to inhabit in the form of their Turkey Point homestead, which is like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse reimagined as the ultimate greaser hangout. Waters began on the fringes of both film and society, but with Cry-Baby, which was produced by big-timer Brian Grazer and released through his and Ron Howard’s powerhouse Imagine Entertainment, he was given the kind of budget he could only fantasize about in the early days, and he made the most of his resources.

Cry Baby is a quintessential ensemble film. Many of its best moments involve Waters lovingly observing his 1950s bad boys and squares in their natural environment while one of Waters’ beloved half-forgotten oldies makes an unholy racket in the background. The film moves to a ramshackle musical rhythm, and Depp accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of matching the charisma of Elvis Presley back in his Jailhouse Rock days, when his androgynous sexiness posed an implicit challenge to an uptight nation that was both aroused and confused by the swiveling of his hips.

If Cry-Baby is an extended valentine to juvenile delinquents, greasers, and AIP exploitation movies about teenagers running amok in sinful and titillating ways, it has a sneaky and surprising amount of affection for squares as well. When the preppy boys croon doo-wop classics in casual harmony with big, goofball smiles on their faces, it’s supposed to be ridiculous and hopelessly dorky, particularly when contrasted with the nuclear bomb force of the title character’s sex appeal. But the film takes a distinct pleasure in that squareness, and encourages audiences to do the same.

Waters’ affection for the days of his youth is refreshing largely because it is devoid of the maudlin, sentimental phoniness that defines most nostalgia.

The Squares that the Drapes face off against are white to the point of being translucent. Waters has a lot of mischievous fun creating an over the top burlesque of uptight, gee-whiz retro whiteness. Cry-Baby is the kind of film where the exemplars of cultural conformity giddily Bunny Hop down the street and propriety isn’t just an obsession; it’s damn near a religion, which makes Cry-Baby and his lot heretics.

For a man who began his career in the field of profoundly filthy, X-rated gay provocations, Waters has unexpectedly come to represent childhood innocence. There is a reason he’s become one of the most beloved figures in American culture despite not having made a movie in twelve years. For Waters, naughtiness and innocence are hopelessly intertwined. When Cry-Baby mocks both sides of the 1950s square/greaser divide, it’s from a place of profound understanding and affection.

Is it possible to enjoy Cry-Baby in light of the ugliness of its star’s personal life? For me and my wife at least, the answer is yes. Acting is not autobiography. Though we like to imagine that movie stars are the people they play, acting is the art of pretending to be someone you’re not. If Depp undoubtedly invested elements of himself into his most beloved roles and performances, he is ultimately not Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood or Captain Jack Sparrow or Cry-Baby Walker. Nope, he’s just the guy who played them. Re-watching Cry-Baby, I found myself falling in love with the film, its title character, and Depp’s performance all over again, even if my affection for the actor has diminished to the point of non-existence in light of Heard’s allegations.


Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 73 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

Trailer award winner italian ratings superman cops Travel Channel Mary Tyler Moore spinoff 90s obituary Television Academy trailers Arrowverse Lifetime NBC Stephen King renewed TV shows Epix spain facebook Interview technology spider-man TNT james bond Set visit Ovation Mary poppins dragons movies basketball cartoon archives robots indiana jones BBC America psycho chucky breaking bad Mindy Kaling twilight ghosts spanish language LGBT binge dexter international Character Guide Teen movie streaming movies science fiction sports Walt Disney Pictures die hard A&E aliens criterion Discovery Channel police drama DGA Hallmark name the review social media book adaptation fresh Holidays travel aapi Oscars Television Critics Association Dark Horse Comics Paramount OWN asian-american parents series cinemax 2016 Classic Film dogs comics Logo Marathons YouTube Red 72 Emmy Awards crime docuseries cancelled television crime thriller Photos Drama Pride Month kong Amazon Prime Video universal monsters Year in Review FXX game show Musical Exclusive Video BBC king arthur video kids nfl Binge Guide Avengers boxoffice sequel 4/20 documentary cancelled TV shows dramedy The Walking Dead dc Netflix disaster Nat Geo laika Comedy romantic comedy Disney+ Disney Plus Comic-Con@Home 2021 The Academy Winter TV Freeform stoner Chilling Adventures of Sabrina TIFF 93rd Oscars Shondaland Action golden globes Turner Classic Movies PaleyFest DC streaming service Endgame Anna Paquin Fox News Mary Poppins Returns sitcom singing competition jurassic park comic book movie AMC Netflix Christmas movies Cannes spy thriller 73rd Emmy Awards Sundance cars rt labs critics edition discovery First Reviews DC Comics Heroines Spike hist french NYCC stand-up comedy MSNBC slashers Emmy Nominations cats Kids & Family rt archives Disney true crime tv talk golden globe awards GIFs know your critic 2019 Comedy Central mutant Image Comics natural history zombies japanese 2015 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards batman Writers Guild of America reviews superhero Hallmark Christmas movies serial killer suspense Song of Ice and Fire Women's History Month high school monster movies Trivia versus doctor who ID Grammys sequels adenture Schedule boxing transformers book theme song Rock WGN Bravo jamie lee curtis rotten movies we love target Disney streaming service ViacomCBS scorecard thriller comiccon Amazon Prime TCA Awards scene in color Legendary PBS 21st Century Fox WarnerMedia Super Bowl harry potter halloween tv Superheroe TV movies Academy Awards strong female leads 1990s Amazon Studios political drama Comics on TV Best and Worst child's play Christmas Fall TV BET Pop TV New York Comic Con dark TLC Horror USA crime drama A24 Paramount Network Tumblr The Arrangement Calendar VICE 20th Century Fox mockumentary dceu romance Baby Yoda talk show hidden camera Turner blockbusters feel good San Diego Comic-Con posters christmas movies venice witnail documentaries Family Black Mirror richard e. Grant critic resources live action Sundance Now marvel cinematic universe anthology elevated horror rotten Awards Brie Larson Red Carpet TV politics 45 See It Skip It Extras TV Land rt labs FOX godzilla black screen actors guild Shudder quibi news pirates of the caribbean Rom-Com Video Games Rocketman Black History Month popular supernatural a nightmare on elm street BAFTA Peacock 2020 Pop nbcuniversal Lifetime Christmas movies japan Sneak Peek First Look all-time Awards Tour Spring TV Elton John Nickelodeon Syfy unscripted south america nature 007 IFC films Ellie Kemper Apple cults Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Trophy Talk marvel comics blockbuster Film Starz remakes CBS concert Broadway The Witch children's TV football Country HBO Go Watching Series Funimation critics FX on Hulu Election Pacific Islander green book werewolf Music ESPN cooking Countdown olympics Star Trek Marvel Studios Fantasy adventure spanish Certified Fresh new star wars movies free movies new york CNN king kong Apple TV Plus Star Wars video on demand ABC Signature YouTube E! Nominations franchise TCM comedies canceled TV shows blaxploitation classics period drama slasher Sony Pictures Superheroes lord of the rings Podcast 99% Emmys heist movie Comic Book GLAAD American Society of Cinematographers Pixar comic books X-Men based on movie Fox Searchlight GoT Alien Crunchyroll reboot royal family telelvision rom-coms teaser RT21 legend Vudu women revenge wonder woman Summer gangster ABC Family Adult Swim worst movies BET Awards TCA 2017 Columbia Pictures Quiz President hispanic heritage month SundanceTV justice league worst BBC One miniseries toronto game of thrones scary movies Marvel Television what to watch saw 71st Emmy Awards The Purge Cosplay satire Wes Anderson Thanksgiving adaptation YA Animation FX stop motion Amazon war prank razzies debate Hulu best Tokyo Olympics Mudbound young adult VH1 Western Mystery HBO Premiere Dates screenings Acorn TV Rocky Lionsgate Reality Tomatazos The Walt Disney Company kaiju zombie Disney Plus Tarantino Paramount Plus comic book movies ABC Pet Sematary finale Crackle PlayStation TruTV Martial Arts MTV cancelled toy story Opinion new zealand HBO Max Film Festival hispanic LGBTQ Valentine's Day festival biography Pirates crossover MCU latino Infographic Disney Channel Masterpiece hollywood Warner Bros. APB television zero dark thirty canceled 2017 emmy awards streaming animated cancelled TV series indie ITV TCA Winter 2020 Esquire Cartoon Network diversity CW Seed NBA Chernobyl Ghostbusters mission: impossible Lucasfilm foreign Holiday Reality Competition Sundance TV SDCC biopic CBS All Access directors medical drama psychological thriller festivals Captain marvel Biopics Food Network Hear Us Out space E3 anime sag awards DirecTV joker Toys DC Universe USA Network Sci-Fi Winners Apple TV+ Universal National Geographic halloween independent IFC Films Polls and Games TBS SXSW Spectrum Originals 2018 CMT OneApp action-comedy TCA australia Tubi Creative Arts Emmys deadpool RT History historical drama fast and furious docudrama Box Office El Rey YouTube Premium vampires The CW 24 frames VOD composers TV One comic Britbox Showtime History Musicals casting TV renewals Marvel mcc 2021