Underground criminal Divine lives under the pseudonym "Babs Johnson" with her mentally ill, egg-loving mother Edie, delinquent son Crackers, and traveling companion Cotton. They all live together in a pink and green trailer on the outskirts of Phoenix, Maryland, in front of which can be found a gazing ball alongside a pair of eponymous plastic pink flamingos. After learning that Divine has been named "the filthiest person alive" by a tabloid paper, jealous rivals Connie and Raymond Marble set out to destroy her career but come undone in the process.
The Marbles run an "adoption clinic", which is actually a black market baby ring. They kidnap young women, have them impregnated by their manservant, Channing, and sell the babies to lesbian couples. The proceeds are used to finance a network of dealers selling heroin in inner-city elementary schools. Raymond also gets money by exposing himself (with large kielbasa sausages tied to his penis) to unsuspecting women in a park and stealing their purses when they flee. The Marbles send a spy named Cookie in the guise of what Crackers thinks is a date. In one of the film's most infamous scenes, the two of them have sex while crushing a live chicken between them as Cotton looks on through a window. Cookie then informs the Marbles about Babs' real identity, her whereabouts, and her family, as well as information about her upcoming birthday party.
The Marbles send a box of human feces to Divine as a birthday present with a card addressing her as "Fatso" and proclaiming themselves "The Filthiest People Alive". Worried her title has been seized, Divine proclaims whoever sent the package must die and her two associates agree. Meanwhile, at the Marbles', Channing dresses up as Connie and Raymond, wearing Connie's clothes and imitating their earlier overheard conversations. When the Marbles return home, they catch Channing in the act and respond with outrage, firing him and locking him in a closet until they can return from their tasks and kick him out for good.
The birthday party begins as the Marbles arrive to spy on it. Divine receives an assortment of gifts, including lice shampoo, a pig's head, and an axe. Later on, they all witness a topless dancing woman with a snake and a contortionist who flexes his prolapsed anus in rhythm to the song "Surfin' Bird". One of the guests, the Egg Man, who delivers eggs to Edie daily, confesses his love for her and proposes marriage. She accepts his proposal and he carries Edie off in a wheelbarrow for a honeymoon around the egg industry. The Marbles, disgusted by the reveling, call the police, but this proves unsuccessful as Divine and the other party-goers kill the cops. Divine hacks up their bodies with the axe and the party-goers eat them.
After the party ends, Divine and Crackers head to the Marbles' house, whose address they received from the local gossip Patty Hitler, where they lick and rub everything in their house to spread their "filthiness", which excites them to the point of engaging in oral sex. Divine and Crackers find Channing locked away, but they have no sympathy for him. Once they're in the basement, Divine and Crackers use a large knife to cut the bonds and free the two captive women, then hand over the knife. The women emasculate Channing offscreen.
Meanwhile, Connie and Raymond burn Divine's beloved trailer to the ground. Upon their return home they are troubled by the behavior of their furniture. Having been "cursed" by being licked by Divine and Crackers, the furniture "rejects" the Marbles when they return home: when they try to sit, the cushions fly up, throwing them to the floor. They then find that Channing has bled to death from his castration and the two girls have escaped.
After finding the remains of the burned-out trailer, Divine and Crackers return to the Marbles' home. They take them hostage at gunpoint and return to the site of the trailer. Divine calls the local tabloid media to witness the Marbles' trial and execution, as she proclaims her belief in "filth politics".
Divine holds a "kangaroo court", asks Cotton and Crackers for their biased testimony, and sentences the bound and gagged Marbles to death for "first-degree stupidity" and "assholism". Divine sarcastically offers them the opportunity to speak on their own behalf, but they're of course gagged and they move straight to the execution. They tie the Marbles to a tree, coating them in tar and feathers. Divine then shoots them in the head and the media leave shortly afterward, satisfied with their scoop of a "live homicide". Divine, Crackers, and Cotton talk about where to base their seat of operations next and they enthusiastically decide to relocate to Boise, Idaho, site of a homosexual scandal a few years previously.
The legendary ending opens as Crackers, Cotton, and Divine walk down the street, where they spot a dog and its owner. They look at the dog excitedly and hungrily for some reason. Then the dog defecates on the sidewalk, and Divine sits down next to it. She takes the feces in her hand and puts them in her mouth, proving, as the narrator states, that she is "not only the filthiest person in the world, but is also the world's filthiest actress". She gags twice and grins at the camera.John Waters (narrator) as Mr. J
Divine as Divine / Babs Johnson
David Lochary as Raymond Marble
Mink Stole as Connie Marble
Mary Vivian Pearce as Cotton
Danny Mills as Crackers
Edith Massey as Edie
Cookie Mueller as Cookie
Channing Wilroy as Channing
Paul Swift as The Egg Man
Susan Walsh as Suzie
Linda Olgierson as Linda
Pat Moran as Patty Hitler
Steve Yeager as Nat Curzan
George Figgs as Bongo player
Elizabeth Coffey as Chick with a dick
Divine's friend Bob Adams described the trailer set as a "hippie commune" in Phoenix, Maryland, and noted that they were operating out of a farmhouse that didn't have any hot water. Adams noted however that ultimately Divine and Van Smith decided to start sleeping at Susan Lowe's home in the city, and that they would get up before dawn to put on Divine's makeup before being driven to the set by Jack Walsh. As Adams related, "Sometimes Divy would have to wait out in full drag for Jack to pull the car around from back, and cars full of these blue-collar types on their way to work would practically mount the pavement from gawking at him."
Divine's mother, Frances, later related that she was surprised that her son was able to endure the "pitiful conditions" of the set, noting his "expensive taste in clothes and furniture and food".
Shot on a budget of only $10,000, Pink Flamingos is an example of Waters' style of low-budget filmmaking inspired by New York underground filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and brothers Mike and George Kuchar. Stylistically, it takes its cues from "exaggerated seaport ballroom drag-show pageantry and anctics" with "classic '50s rock-and-roll kitsch classics." Waters' idiosyncratic style—also characterized by its "homemade Technicolor" look, the result of high amounts of indoor paint and make-up—was dubbed the "Baltimore aesthetic" by art students at Providence. Waters' rough editing added "random Joel-Peter Witkin-esque scratches and Stan Brakhage-moth-wing-like dust marks" to the film, apart from sound delays between shots. Waters has stated that Armando Bo's 1969 Argentine film Fuego influenced not only Pink Flamingos, but his other films. He has said: "if you watch some of my films, you can see what a huge influence Fuego was. I forgot how much I stole. ... Look at Isabel's makeup and hairdo in Fuego. Dawn Davenport, Divine's character in Female Trouble, could be her exact twin, only heavier. Isabel, you inspired us all to a life of cheap exhibitionism, exaggerated sexual desires and a love for all that is trash-ridden in cinema."
The film used a number of mainly single B-sides and a few hits of the late 1950s/early 1960s, sourced from John Waters' record collection, and without obtaining rights. Rights having been obtained, they were released as a soundtrack CD in 1997 on the 25th anniversary release of the film on DVD.
- "The Swag" – Link Wray and His Ray Men
- "Intoxica" – The Centurions
- "Jim Dandy" – LaVern Baker
- "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent" – Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
- "The Girl Can't Help It" – Little Richard
- "Ooh! Look-a-There, Ain't She Pretty?" – Bill Haley & His Comets
- "Chicken Grabber" – The Nighthawks
- "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby" – The Tune Weavers
- "Pink Champagne" – The Tyrones
- "Surfin' Bird" – The Trashmen
- "Riot in Cell Block #9" – The Robins
- "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window" – Patti Page
The song "Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby" is used as a replacement for "Sixteen Candles", which appeared in the original 1972 cut of the film; for the 1997 reissue, "Sixteen Candles" could not be used in the film or the soundtrack due to copyright problems. The original release had also used a brief excerpt of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which was removed for the re-release.
The film had its premiere in late 1972 at the third Annual Baltimore Film Festival, held on the campus of the University of Baltimore, where it sold out tickets for three successive screenings; the film had aroused particular interest among fans of underground cinema following the success of Multiple Maniacs, which had begun to be screened in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Being picked up by the then-small independent company New Line Cinema, Pink Flamingos was later distributed to Ben Barenholtz, the owner of the Elgin Theater in New York City. At the Elgin Theater, Barenholtz had been promoting the midnight movie scene, primarily by screening Alejandro Jodorowsky's acid western film El Topo (1970), which had become a "very significant success" in "micro-independent terms". Barenholtz felt that being of an avant-garde nature, Pink Flamingos would fit in well with this crowd, subsequently screening it at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.
The film soon gained a cult following of filmgoers who would repeatedly come to the Elgin Theatre to watch it, a group Barenholtz would characterize as initially composed primarily of "downtown gay people, more of the hipper set", but, after a while Barenholtz noted that this group eventually broadened, with the film becoming popular with "working-class kids from New Jersey who would become a little rowdy," too. Many of these cult cinema fans learned all of the lines in the film, and would recite them at the screenings, a phenomenon which would later become associated with another popular midnight movie of the era, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
The film was initially banned in Australia, as well as in some provinces in Canada and Norway. The film was eventually released on VHS in Australia in the late 1980s with a X rating, but distribution of the video has since been discontinued. The 1997 version was cut by the distributor to achieve an R18+ after it was also refused classification. No submissions of the film have been made since, but it has been said that one of the reasons for which it was banned (as a film showing unsimulated sex cannot be rated X in Australia if it also features violence, so the highest a film such as Pink Flamingos could be rated is R18+) would now not apply, given that the depiction of unsimulated sex was passed within the R18+ rating for Romance in 1999, two years following Pink Flamingos' re-release.
Pink Flamingos was released on VHS and Betamax in 1981, and the re-release in 1997 by New Line Home Video became the second best-selling VHS for its week of release. The film was released in the John Waters Collection DVD box set along with the original NC-17 version of A Dirty Shame, Desperate Living, Female Trouble, Hairspray, Pecker, and Polyester. The film was also released in a 2004 special edition with audio commentaries and deleted scenes as introduced by Waters in the 25th anniversary re-release (see below).The 25th anniversary re-release version contains a re-recorded music soundtrack, re-mixed for stereo, plus 15 minutes of deleted scenes following the film, introduced by Waters. Certain excerpts of music used in the original, including Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring had to be removed and replaced in the re-release, since the music rights had never been cleared for the original release.
Because of this film's explicit nature, it has been edited for content on many occasions throughout the world. In 1973, the U.S. screened version edited out most of the fellatio scene, which was later restored on the 25th anniversary DVD. Canadian censors recently restored five of the seven scenes that were originally edited in that country. A town on Long Island, New York banned the film altogether. The Japanese laserdisc version contains a blur superimposed over all displays of pubic hair. Prints also exist that were censored by the Maryland Censor Board.
The first UK video release of Pink Flamingos in November 1981 (prior to BBFC video regulation requirements) was completely uncut. It was issued by Palace as part of a package of Waters films they had acquired from New Line Cinema. The package included Mondo Trasho (double-billed with Sex Madness), Multiple Maniacs (double-billed with Cocaine Fiends), Desperate Living, and Female Trouble. The 1990 video re-release of Pink Flamingos (which required BBFC approval) was cut by three minutes and four seconds (3:04), the 1997 issue lost two minutes and forty-two seconds (2:42), and the pre-edited 1999 print by two minutes and eight seconds (2:08).
The 2009 Sydney Underground Film Festival screened the film in Odorama for the first time, using scratch 'n' sniff cards similar to the ones used in Waters' later work Polyester.
Kiddie Flamingos: In 2014, John Waters recast the film with children reading a cleverly modified G-rated script. The 74-minute video shown on a continuous loop in the Black Box gallery features adorable kids wearing wigs and suggestions of the original costumes as they evoke the legendary performances of Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and others. Filmed in one day mostly with friends’ children, Waters has said the new version is in some ways more perverse than the original. The film is being shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art through January 2017.
The film received generally positive reviews, currently holding an 80% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 40 reviews. Like the underground films from which Waters drew inspiration, which provided a source of community for pre-Stonewall queer people, the film has been widely celebrated by the LGBT community and has been described as "early gay agitprop filmmaking." This, coupled with its unanimous popularity among queer theorists, has led to the film being considered "the most important queer film of all time." Pink Flamingos is also considered an important precursor of punk culture.
Despite Waters having released similar films, such as Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, it was Pink Flamingos that drew international attention to itself. Like other underground films, it fed into the rising popularity of midnight movie screenings, at which it generated a dedicated cult following that carried the film for a 95-week run in New York City and ten consecutive years in Los Angeles. For its 25th anniversary, the film was re-released in 1997, featuring commentary by Waters and unused scenes, adding fifteen minutes of material. American "New Queer Cinema" director Gus Van Sant has described the film as "an absolute classic piece of American cinema, right up there with The Birth of a Nation, Dr. Strangelove, and Boom!"
The final scene in the film would prove particularly infamous, involving the character of Babs eating fresh dog feces; as Divine would later tell a reporter, "I followed that dog around for three hours just zooming in on its asshole" waiting for it to empty its bowels so that they could film the scene. In an interview not in character, Harris Milstead revealed that he soon called an emergency room nurse, pretending that his child had eaten dog feces, to inquire about possible harmful effects. (There were none.) The scene would become one of the most notable moments of Divine's acting career, and he would later complain of people thinking that "I run around doing it all the time. I've received boxes of dog shit – plastic dog shit. I have gone to parties where people just sit around and talk about dog shit because they think it's what I want to talk about". In reality, he remarked, he was not a coprophile but only ate excrement that one time because "it was in the script".
Divine asked his mother, Frances Milstead, not to watch the film, a wish that she obliged. Several years before his death, Frances asked him if he had really eaten dog excrement in the film, to which he "just looked at me with that twinkle in his blue eyes, laughed, and said 'Mom, you wouldn't believe what they can do nowadays with trick photography'."
The film has a reputation as a midnight movie classic cult with audience participation similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.The Funday PawPet Show holds what is called the "Pink Flamingo Challenge", in which the ending to the film is played to the audience while they eat a (preferably chocolate) confection. Videos of the show are forbidden from showing the clip, only the reaction of the audience.
Theater patrons often received free "Pink Phlegmingo" vomit bags.
Death metal band Skinless sampled portions of the Filth Politics speech for the songs "Merrie Melody" and "Pool of Stool", both on their second album Foreshadowing Our Demise.
Joe Jeffreys, a drag historian mentioned seeing in a cameo in Pink Flamingos a poster of The Queen (1968) featuring Flawless Sabrina and it influenced his career path to document the history of drag with the Drag Show Video Verite.
Waters had plans for a sequel, titled Flamingos Forever. Troma Entertainment offered to finance the picture, but it was never made, as Divine refused to be involved, and in 1984, Edith Massey died.
After reading the script, Divine had refused to be involved as he believed that it would not be a suitable career move, for he had begun to focus on more serious, male roles in films like Trouble in Mind. According to his manager, Bernard Jay, "What was, in the early seventies, a mind-blowing exercise in Poor Taste, was now, we both believed, sheer Bad Taste. Divi[ne] felt the public would never accept such an infantile effort in shock tactics some fifteen years later and by people fast approaching middle age."
The script for Flamingos Forever would later be published in John Waters 1988 book Trash Trio, which also included the scripts for Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living.