The arrival of the big-budget musical version of Hairspray gives us yet another delightful chance to experience the colorful and weird streets of Baltimore. Oh, wait. No it doesn’t. Turns out the big budget wasn’t big enough to shoot in authentic locations, so as is often the case these days, the producers loaded up the trucks and moved the entire production to Toronto, where a fake Baltimore took the place of the scruffy real thing.
As Divine spins in his grave at this affront to his earthy hometown, let’s take a minute and list some of the most memorable movies that were actually shot in Baltimore. Boil up some crabs, slip on a beehive wig, and enjoy them, ‘hon.’
10. The Accidental Tourist
Anne Tyler is Baltimore’s most successful novelist, and this faithful adaptation, starring Geena Davis and a not-too-weird William Hurt, is about a morose travel writer who hates to travel. Separated from his wife (Kathleen Turner), he finds new hope in a kooky dog trainer, with lots of long conversations on dog walks in the Baltimore rain. It’s a grown-up movie full of great dialogue.
9. The Blair Witch Project
As Jaws is to swimming, Blair Witch is to camping. Though the movie doesn’t actually spend any time in ‘Charm City’ before it heads out into the woods of Western Maryland, that’s OK. It’s still on our list because all these years later we still think about it. Or to be more accurate, it still troubles our tormented sleep. If you’ve never experienced the Witch, now would be a great time. If you experienced it back in 1999, rent it, and see if it still holds up for you. Damn. Now we’re probably going to dream about it again tonight.
John Waters famously said that he cast Johnny Depp in his first starring feature role by browsing through issues of Tiger Beat. Whatever works, John! This follow-up to the original Hairspray chronicles a sort of low-grade early-’60s gang war between Baltimore’s ‘drapes’ and ‘squares,’ which today we might translate as ‘white trash’ and ‘preppies.’ Depp and his rockabilly band are the most delinquent of the drapes, and comic (and musical) Romeo-and-Juliet antics ensue when he falls for the prettiest square in town, a good girl who wants to be bad. Watch for a bevy of crazy cameos (Patty Hearst, before she became a cliché) and some gorgeous classic cars.
John Waters writes another love letter to his hometown, this time focusing on a talented young photographer (Edward Furlong), his angry laundromat manager girlfriend (Cristina Ricci), and his crazy lower-class family, including his grandmother, called Me-Ma-Ma in true Baltimore fashion, a woman who cooks pit beef on the front lawn and hears the Virgin Mary talking to her. ‘Full of grace! Full of grace!’ The best scene: Lesbian strippers down at the Pelt Room hurl verbal abuse at their audience as they take it all off. Pecker observes through a window until a bouncer reminds him, ‘Aint no peekin’ at the Pelt Room, Pecker.’ Baltimore at its best, with one of Waters’s most eclectic soundtracks.
If John Waters is the Satan of Baltimore filmmaking, then Barry Levinson is the saint. His nostalgic and lyrical Baltimore films are worth watching again and again. Case in point, this Russian immigrant family drama that documents three generations of the Krichinskis trying to make a go of it in the USA. Watch for Levinson’s incredible attention to detail. The movie is extremely sentimental but never cloying.
Francine Fishpaw is the original desperate housewife. Her husband cheats on her, her daughter is a wild slut, her son is a violent foot fetishist, and her mother-in-law wants her dead. Will sexy Tab Hunter take her away from all this in his sleek Corvette? John Waters’s first attempt at a mainstream film came with the gimmick of scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards (to mirror Francine’s heightened sense of smell), but even without a card the movie is a Baltimore hoot. Just check out the tacky catering hall where Francine’s crazy friend Cuddles (the unforgettable Edith Massey) holds her ‘debut.’ Pure Baltimore trash. [You can get the Odorama card with some versions of the Polyester DVD. -Ed.]
4. The Wire
It’s not a movie, but it’s not TV either. It’s HBO, and it’s probably the best series you’ve never watched. Dozens of characters, hundreds of Baltimore locations, countless plot threads, all woven together to tell the stories of drug dealers, cops, teachers, politicians, dockworkers, you name it. More densely packed than a dozen Dickens novels, The Wire is episodic television at its absolute best. Grab a handful of DVDs (more than 40 episodes are available), and settle in for weeks of gut-wrenching exploration of Baltimore’s meanest streets.
3. Pink Flamingos
Watching Waters’s most notorious midnight movie is rather like surviving a car crash. You stagger away from it, look around, and express amazement that you’ve survived the experience. Everyone should see this movie once. No one should see it twice. This drug-fueled saga of the lowest of Baltimore’s lowest classes, all battling each other to see who can become ‘the filthiest person alive,’ is not for the faint of heart. The winner, of course, is the magnificent Divine, in part because of the notorious ‘dog feces’ scene (not to mention the incestuous oral sex) but also because of the way he shoplifts a big ol’ steak between his voluminous thighs. Enjoy!
Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of those career-launching films that come along every ten years or so. Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, and Ellen Barkin all got huge boosts from this ensemble story of five guys circa 1959 all tentatively finding their way into adulthood. Famously quotable (‘We all know most marriages depend on a firm grasp of football trivia.), it’s one of the best films in the overcrowded coming-of-age genre.
1. Hairspray (1988)
John Waters’s art-house fan base must have been shocked by this sweet-natured and delightful tribute to his own teen years as an obsessive fan of a local TV dance party show. Can pleasantly plumb Tracy Turnblad beat out the cold-hearted competition, make it onto the show, find a sexy boyfriend, and integrate Baltimore all while dancing a mean Madison? Of course she can! Ricki Lake is a bubbly joy to watch as she navigates a city full of bigots, beatniks (Pia Zadora!), and crazy beats. And once again, Divine serves as Waters’s essential muse. Hearing frumpy hausfrau Edna’s Baltimore accent when she says ‘I’m tryin’ to iron’ may be the single most Baltimore moment in all of cinema. Hey, Travolta, you make us miss Divine more than ever.