This Week in 1981: 'Polyester' Wafts Into Theaters

3D may be the gimmick of the moment, but 30 years ago this week (on May 29, 1981), John Waters came up with a different way to extend movies into a new dimension and make them more in-your-face. It was called Odorama, and his test vehicle, a movie you could smell, was 'Polyester.'

'Polyester' was a brave undertaking for Waters, previously known as the outsider auteur whose deliberately outrageous films (most notoriously 'Pink Flamingos') had been relegated to midnight-movie status. For the first time, he was courting the attention of the mainstream. He risked having both cult fans and mainstream critics tell the world that 'Polyester' stunk (often literally). And while none really dared follow his technical innovation, Waters did prove that the mainstream was ready for his idiosyncratic brand of satire -- and that he, in turn, was ready for mass acceptance, a transition he would complete with his next movie, 'Hairspray.'

On the surface, 'Polyester' looked like Waters' previous films. It was a suburban satire, full of taboo-breaking behavior and populated with the oddballs from his regular Dreamland company of actors, including Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and titanic drag queen Divine. But it was also an homage to the classic, florid, women's pictures of the 1950s, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk. He even cast his first Hollywood star, faded 1950s himbo Tab Hunter, in a lead role as Todd Tomorrow, handsome love interest of Francine Fishpaw, the depressed, put-upon suburban housewife played by Divine.

Even Odorama was, in a way, a throwback to 1950s movies, specifically, the horror films produced by William Castle, known for such in-theater gimmicks as vibrating seats and glow-in-the-dark skeletons suspended over the audience. In 1960, a Castle-esque gimmick called Smell-O-Vision was developed for producer Mike Todd Jr.'s 'Scent of Mystery,' a crime drama (featuring a murder victim played by Todd's stepmom, the uncredited Elizabeth Taylor) in which scented vapors with aromas key to solving the mystery plot were piped into theaters at appropriate moments. Smell-O-Vision turned out to be a laughable failure; the scent machines made a distracting hissing noise, and theater patrons found the smells similarly disorienting and noxious.

Waters' Odorama was a low-tech update, using scratch-and-sniff cards distributed to ticketbuyers. Each card had 10 numbered scents. When a number flashed in the corner of the movie screen, you were supposed to smell the appropriate-numbered scent. Some aromas were pleasant (roses, pizza, new car smell, air freshener), but Waters being Waters, some were cheekily disgusting (gasoline, skunk, ratty sneakers, farts). Having persuaded audiences to watch Divine eat a freshly-laid dog dropping in 'Pink Flamingos,' Waters cackled that he now was getting moviegoers to "pay to smell sh*t."

And yet, Waters had actually toned down much of his usual outrageousness for 'Polyester.' It was the first of his films to be rated R, not X, so it could play in mainstream theaters. It was also his first to be released by a mainstream distributor (New Line). It featured songs by Debbie Harry, who was the queen of rock at the time, as the frontwoman of Blondie. (The movie's theme was sung by Harry and Bill Murray, of all people.) And it was probably the first Waters movie to garner positive reviews from mainstream newspaper critics.

Alas, 'Polyester' did not become the 'Avatar' of Odorama; there was no boomlet of scented movies that followed in its pungent wake. But the film did have an impact. It revived Hunter's career, giving him a second wave of fame as a camp icon. It also brought mainstream recognition to Divine, who played his female role relatively straight in 'Polyester,' leading to another romantic collaboration with Hunter, the Western spoof 'Lust in the Dust.' Most important, 'Polyester' provided the bridge to 'Hairspray' (featuring Harry as the villainess), which was PG-clean but still full of Waters' outsider-satire weirdness. 'Hairspray' became a huge hit (and a massive Broadway musical, which itself became a movie), Waters became enshrined as an elder statesman of trash, and the rest is history. Odorama may have been a footnote in that history, but its scent lingers on.

This Week in Movie History

1989 (June 2): 'Dead Poets Society' is released, proving Robin Williams can play serious roles. The prep school drama becomes a big hit, wins an Oscar for Tom Schulman's original screenplay, and is instrumental in launching the careers of Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles.
2002 (June 3): Lew Wasserman, the mogul who charted Hollywood's course for the second half of the 20th century, dies at 89. Once Hollywood's top talent agent, Wasserman would alter the industry's balance of power several times, first by getting studios to pay stars a percentage of the gross instead of a salary or flat fee up front, then by monopolizing the TV production business at a time when movie moguls were afraid to get involved with the new technology, and finally, by purchasing Universal Studios and running it for 40 years.
2003 (May 29): Movie comedy titan and tireless USO performer Bob Hope celebrates his 100th birthday. He dies two months later, on July 27.

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

Go ahead, make my birthday. Clint Eastwood turned 81 on May 31. Frequent Eastwood collaborator Morgan Freeman turned 74 the next day. Angelina Jolie, who starred in Eastwood's 'Changeling,' is 36 on June 4. She shares a birthday with Russell Brand, born on the same day in the same year.

June 2 sees a run on birthday candles. Justin Long turns 33, making him exactly one year younger than Zachary Quinto. Dana Carvey turns 55 (No way? Way!). Composer Marvin Hamlisch is 67, tough guy Stacy Keach is 70, and 'M*A*S*H' and 'Back to School' star Sally Kellerman is 74.

Celebrating on May 29 were Annette Benning (53) and composer Danny Elfman (58). May 31 marked a birthday for Brooke Shields (46) and Chris Elliott (51).

Milestone birthdays this week include '2001: A Space Odyssey' star Keir Dullea (75 on May 30), Colin Farrell (35 on May 31), Lea Thompson (50 on May 31), and Bruce Dern (75 on June 4).

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'X-Men: First Class' Trailer No. 2


'X-Men: First Class' (PG-13)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
What's It About? This prequel recounts how mind-reader Professor X (McAvoy) and metal master Magneto (Fassbender), back when they were still friends and hadn't yet aged into Master British Thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, recruited the first mutants who would become the original X-Men. Familiar characters include shape-shifter Mystique (Lawrence), while bad guys include diamond-skinned Emma Frost (Jones) and Nazi war criminal-turned-supervillain Sebastian Shaw (Bacon).
Why Should You See It? Director Vaughn did well with 'Kick-Ass,' so perhaps he can be trusted with a much more beloved superhero franchise. The stars all have solid acting credentials, not just good looks (though Lawrence and Jones are pretty hot, even buried under layers of scaly makeup).
You Might Like It If You Like: 'X-Men,' 'Kick-Ass,' 'Hollow Man' (another movie where Kevin Bacon played a mad-scientist villain named Sebastian)

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Five HUGE Differences Between the Comic Books and 'X-Men: First Class'
Who's Who in the 'X-Men: First Class' Cast
Professor X and Magneto: Their Comic Book History | Best Comic Book Frenemies
Interviews: Kevin Bacon | January Jones | Michael Fassbender


In Limited Release

'Beginners' stars Ewan McGregor as a man who embarks on a new romance (with 'Inglourious Basterds' star Mélanie Laurent) while taking inspiration from the example of his late father (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet in his 70s, just before he died. Mike Mills ('Thumbsucker') directed this romance, inspired by the story of his own late father.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailer | Cinematical's Review

'Submarine,' a hit at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, sees writer/director Richard Ayoade adapte Joe Dunthorne's coming-of-age novel about a Welsh teen trying to lose his virginity and save his parents' crumbling marriage.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailer | Cinematical's Review

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'The Hangover Part II' - What happened in Vegas happens again in Bangkok. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Kung Fu Panda 2' - Is it still typecasting if the villain Gary Oldman plays is an animated peacock? Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'The Tree of Life' - Chances to see Terence Malick's visually poetic meditations on the big screen don't come around very often; dude's been known to go 20 years between movies. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailer | Reviews

Staying In This Weekend?

New on DVD: Two of the screen's most intense actors have very different DVDs out this week in which they play heroes who've already been damned but who seek redemption as they try to make a future for their offspring. Nicolas Cage re-enacts the Orpheus myth in 'Drive Angry' (Buy or rent the DVD), as a hot-rodder from hell bent on saving his kidnapped infant granddaughter. Javier Bardem, in an Oscar-nominated performance, stars in 'Biutiful' (Buy or rent the DVD) as a con man trying to give his kids a life while he succumbs to cancer. One of these is tongue-in-cheek escapist exploitation; the other is a searing, emotionally draining drama. We'll let you decide which is which. More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Congratulations, new college grads! What do you do with your lives now? If that question stumps you, you're not alone. Best tonic for you is 1995's 'Kicking and Screaming' (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell soccer movie of the same title), in which several recent grads - facing an unforgiving world that no longer offers easy access to cheap beer, cheap sex and cheap philosophizing - try to forestall their expulsion from the dorm womb for as long as possible before being dragged into the world of adult responsibilities and relationships. The debut feature of Noah Baumbach ('The Squid and the Whale,' 'Greenberg'), 'Kicking' is a chatty but wistful coming-of-age comedy that plays like the missing link between Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: Need to bone up on your Marvel mutant history before catching 'X-Men: First Class'? You can catch the entire trilogy in one seven-hour sitting this weekend on FX (Saturday, 7PM to Sunday, 2AM). Watch 'X-Men' (2000), 'X2: X-Men United' (2003) and 'X-Men: The Last Stand' (2006), and recall a time long ago, back before Hugh Jackman was a star, back before director Bryan Singer went off the reservation with 'Superman Returns,' and back when Singer's first two X-movies were so strong that not even hiring Brett Ratner to direct the third one could wreck the franchise. Check your local listings


Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.