Christopher Walken is my new favorite movie dad.
The creepy actor best-known for playing villains and psychopaths nearly steals Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007) away from the radiant Nikki Blonski (playing his daughter Tracy) and John Travolta, sadly underutilized in a gender-bending role as his wife, Edna. It’s Walken’s Wilbur, the only character not swathed in a cotton candy haze of makeup, sequins, and hairspray, whose strong presence gives Tracy and Edna the foundation for their helium-balloon performances.
Hairspray opens up in the clouds, and with a long, swooping pan the camera sails down into Baltimore and through the window of Tracy Turnblad’s bedroom. As the soundtrack thumps a steady beat, we see a shape wiggling in the bed, two bright eyes pop open, then two tapping feet emerge and slide into bunny slippers. This is the only time the camera looks at Tracy so closely, feature by feature; then it pulls back, and for the rest of the film, stays back so we can really appreciate the whole fabulous singing and dancing shape of her. She’s an Energizer bunny of a girl who belts out her first song before breakfast. I wondered if the film could maintain its high-octane opening; its energy flags only when it pauses for dialogue, but happily Hairspray is an unapologetic musical, taking few breaks for conversation.
We don’t meet Tracy’s parents until she’s home from school to watch the televised local dance program, “The Corny Collins Show.” Learning that one of the teen dancers is taking an unexpected nine-month leave, Tracy decides to audition; she wants to show that big girls can dance (plus, she’s got a crush on one of the boys). Her mom, whom we meet as she sends one of her laundry customer’s out the door, discourages her: “Dancing’s not your future; one day you’re going to own Edna’s Occidental Laundry!”
I wanted to really love Edna. Hairspray tradition has Edna played by a man, first Divine (in the John Waters camp classic) then Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical. Now we have John Travolta, always a fun actor to watch, in a delicate performance, stepping weightlessly in that fat suit. Knowing nothing about the story, I was imagining him as a proudly supportive plus-size mom of a plus-size daughter, a role model for all the ‘tweens I noticed watching the movie with their moms. She’s certainly the best option in a film crowded with mother-daughter pairs: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Cruella deVil-like Velma is too calculating, Allison Janney’s Prudy Pingelton too puritanical, and Queen Latifah’s Motormouth Maybelle too busy. But Edna’s a stereotyped housewife with dreams no bigger than owning a laundromat, a woman too embarrassed by her weight to leave the house; she simpers deferentially to her husband and can’t imagine her daughter living a life less limited than her own. It takes her awhile to catch up to her daughter’s dreams, and she’s led that direction by her quiet husband.
Wilbur owns the Hardee Har Hut, a joke shop crammed with rubber chickens and whoopee cushions. The goofy goods at his store don’t seem to match his thoughtful personality. He doesn’t blink an eye at Tracy’s dream, and contributes to the film’s continual punning about weight, saying: “You’ve got to think big to be big!”
When Tracy lands the part and becomes the show’s most popular dancer, Wilbur supports her by selling Tracy wigs, dolls, and other merchandise at his store; Tracy urges her mom to be her agent, and Edna finally leaves the house to negotiate a savvy endorsement deal with a local dress shop. Mother and daughter get new dresses in the bargain, and seeing the two sing and shimmy in their spangly pink outfits is worth the ticket price.
Meanwhile, there’s a plot brewing under the singing and dancing, a message about integration and accepting difference. It’s a simple message, old news for the adults in the audience, but a nicely candy-coated way to start a good conversation with kids about racial difference and body image. Tracy wanted on the show to prove that not only skinny girls can dance; now she wants the show to drop “Negro Day” and let black and white kids dance together: “I think I’ve been in a bubble or something, thinking that fairness was just going to happen. I think it’s not. I think people like me have to get up off their fathers’ laps and fight for it.” Again, Edna discourages her daughter’s activism: “If you protest, you’ll be on lists, you’ll be in files!” Wilbur is not just proud of Tracy’s spunk, he bails out her friends when they’re arrested at the protest: “It just seemed like the right thing,” he remarks.
The film builds toward the Miss Hairspray competition, in which the popular underdog Tracy dances for the title against the slim blonde Amber. But the emotional heart of the movie comes earlier, when Wilbur and Edna reconnect after a quarrel by singing a love song, exchanging sweet insults in “You’re Timeless to Me:” (Wilbur: “You’re like stinky old cheese babe, just getting riper with age!” Edna: “You’re like a broken down Chevy; all you need is a fresh coat of paint.”). I began to think more generously of Edna here, seeing her through her loving husband’s eyes (a man whose “heart only beats for size sixty”). She’s a 50s mom taking tentative steps into the broader world of the 60s, not wanting her own circumscribed world to confine her daughter. As she and her husband waltz in and out of the house, under the clotheslines and around the backyard garbage cans, their costumes change from bright red tango outfits to black tie and a glittery ball gown; their world expands in their dance, and suggests a way to think of Tracy’s future. She dances from apartment to classroom to tv studio and back again, but her talent could take her somewhere bigger.
Tracy doesn’t win the title of Miss Hairspray, but the movie comes to a rousing, crowd-pleasing end nonetheless – and she does get the boy. As she kisses her dreamboat, the camera moves in closer and closer, continuing the film’s opening shot, until the couple’s faces fill a screen quickly framed by a television set, reminding us not to think too grandly of this picture. Tracy and all play their roles on a small stage, but Hairspray‘s big message is that singing and dancing can change the world. It’s an inspiring idea.