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Saturday, July 21, 2007


"Oh Lord,” I thought, “Do I really have to confess this? Will anyone here even remember anyway? Is it even necessary?” Eventually, though, I realized that the truth will always find a way out, even if it has to crawl out of an old hooker’s diary. Just ask Senator David Vitter. So here goes: My mother was John Waters’ inspiration for the original character of Tracy Turnblad of Hairspray way back in 1988. Do you think that is anything to be proud about? Well, trust me, it’s not.

It was 1962 and she was a bonafide “Hair hopper”, so proud of her ‘do in fact that she was more than happy to model her twenty-four inch high (measured daily, she assured me) towering beehive on "American Bandstand." It was there where she cleverly tossed her head strategically enough to block Dick Clark’s money shots a record eleven times for better close-ups of her own. Well, of her hair anyway. She seldom got her face on the screen, but that was as much the curse of limited technology as it was an amateur teenager’s lack of understanding about hitting her marks. So after getting chucked by burly ABC goons into an alley after her one appearance as an "American Bandstand" dancer she thought her three-cans of Aquanet creation and her were history. Then, miraculously, she got a phone call from a local dance show in Baltimore. The host, Buddy Deane, told her he loved anyone who had the cojones to try to upstage Dick Clark, and he asked if she would come and dance on his show as his special guest. He even offered her a free case of Breck Shampoo and a Trailways bus ticket from Long Island if she’d do it. Hey! She was 16, and had an eating disorder, only back then they didn’t call it that. They called it “being a pig” because she ate everything she could get her lips on and the idea of a trans-state trip with stops at every town along the way filled her head with ideas of how to fill her belly. I swear if the Internet was around then she would have googled “Dunkin Donuts” and had a map ready to go.

It’s true. Mama was a “plus-sized” teen, a tons-of-fun gal, with a heart of gold and the hips of a
concrete mixer. The girl could grind better than Elvis in his skinniest day, and she never thought that hauling an extra hundred pounds around was an issue for her. It was to a lot of other people, but Mama couldn’t care less. So when she shook her groove-thing on "The Buddy Deane Show" on WJZ-TV she had a blast, then stopped at a Waffle House for a large stack of pancakes, and hopped the bus home. At least that’s the way she always told the story when I was growing up and her parents were around urging her to recount the adventure “one more time.”

It wasn’t until my grandparents were dead and I was past thirty and married for more than five years that my mother, her hairdo now decidedly much shorter and tamer, felt she could spill the rest of the story, and that’s when her ‘
Hairspray’ connection became ever so clear.

Okay, so there are differences. This version, like the music-filled non-Broadway musical version from 1988, as opposed to the still-playing Broadway musical on which this is based takes place in Baltimore, 1962, and follows the story of a Baltimore butterball named Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) who is obsessed with an afternoon live music and dance show featuring a dream team of gorgeous and talented dancers, including a pubescent Elvis wannabe named Link Larkin (Zac Efron; High School Musical). Tracy can think of nothing more life-fulfilling than joining the “council” on tv and dancing with dreamboat Link, an ambition not appreciated by her initially less-than-enthusiastic laundress mother Edna, played by former leading man John Travolta (Lonely Hearts), buried under gobs (?) of prosthetics to become a 300 pound housewife.

Now let’s be honest here. The p.r. machine for this movie has made a big deal about Travolta’s fat suit, and you and me and everybody with half a brain knows that the story about it taking him five hours each day to “transform” into Edna is just a load. Anyone who saw the swimming hole scene in Travolta’s last film, Wild Hogs, knows he was already bordering on a c-cup and was only a carton or two of Krispy Kremes away from filling Edna’s frocks without rubber padding. I imagine the five hours each morning were mostly spent with John slipping into a slight suit meant to cover up his copious body hair, then an hour of make-up and wig styling, followed by an hour long breakfast that could otherwise feed a struggling third world country, and finally three hours of John proselytizing to the cast and crew about Scientology, and all before his 8:00 a.m. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What does is Travolta’s performance, and it is rock solid! He is hysterically funny and sympathetic as both mother and wife of the Turnblad family.

Travolta’s husband Wilbur is played by Christopher Walken (Click), the always optimistic owner of a joke shop next door to their home. Wilbur, along with Tracy’s best friend forever Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes; She’s the Man), support her dream and urge her to go for it and audition for “The Corny Collins Show.”

Okay so it’s just a coincidence that my mother’s name was Stacy Sternblatt and she was a tubby teenager who visited Baltimore to dance on tv. I’m just saying.

Anyway, Stacy, er, I mean, Tracy meets a frosty reception in the form of program manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer; White Oleander) and the clone she calls her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow; John Tucker Must Die). She also discovers the reality of racism for the first time
in her naïve life when she comes to understand how segregation works and in no time she, Link, and Penny are dancing in the “Negro” part of town, listening to the songs of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day” DJ, Motormouth Maybelle, Queen Latifah (Last Holiday).

As you can imagine, what is advertised as a frothy, silly comedy actually includes a good story, a tad bit of history, and a positive message mixed in amongst a bopping score with non-stop songs that will have you wanting to sing along and get up and dance in the aisles. I kid you not. When I saw the movie on Friday afternoon, the theater was full ~ full on a work day! ~ and there was so much energy vibrating from the audience keeping beat with the rhythm of the music you could feel it in the air and on the floor. I am sure the staff in the lobby at the
Essex Cinemas must have wondered if there was an earthquake going on inside.

I had seen the Broadway version of the show and I will admit I approached this version with a certain preconceived contempt because I resented the fact that Travolta was starring instead of Broadway’s original Edna, Harvey Firestein. Harvey is a fabulous actor, with a voice that is singularly recognizable as his own. I thought he was the only possible choice to make me forget the inimitable Divine, who starred in the 1988 Hairspray, and would no doubt have demanded to star in this one as well if s/he was still alive. Thankfully, this entire issue becomes inconsequential thanks to director Adam Shankman (Cheaper By The Dozen 2) who is also the choreographer. His ability to take the songs and the actors out of the stage settings and expand them into the “real world” where they share the lyrics in unique ways not done on stage brings new life to the story and makes it all the more exciting and fresh.

Okay, so when I went in I was really unhappy, thinking that New Line Cinema had resurrected a
part of the past that just made my mom look like a dumb fat teenager in love with a boy who would never really end up with her in the end, but I have to say that they did much better than I could have hoped. Nikki Blonsky is a beautiful and talented singer and dancer, as is Elijah Kelley (Take The Lead) as Seaweed, Motormouth Maybelle’s son and the object of Penney’s affections. James Marsden (Superman Returns) is downright gorgeous as always in the role of Corny Collins and kudos have to go to young Taylor Parks (Beyond the Pretty Door), who, as Little Inez, shows that the biggest of talents often come in the smallest of packages. As an added treat, look for Ricki Lake, the Traci Turnblad of the 1988 version, doing a cameo as a talent agent in the audience at "The Corny Collins Show." That's a nice touch, as is the inclusion of author John Waters as a flasher in the opening song and 1988's Wilbur, Jerry Stiller, in a small role as dress shill Mr. Pinky.

Naturally the movie ends with a big blowout song and dance fest that will rock the roof as it did at the Essex Cinemas when I was there, but for those who care, the story doesn’t end there. The real Tracy/Stacy returned to New York and never saw Link again. She tried to get a gig back on “Bandstand” but her morning sickness got in the way, so she had to take it pretty easy for the next nine months. Once I was born, she went on a diet, lost a ton of weight, and moved to California, and she eventually did become a tv actress. That’s where we lived for the rest of her life, wondering if the real Link was ever going to look us up. Pitiful, ain’t it? You can see why they keep that part out. But anyway, go see Hairspray. It’s a gas!

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