50 years ago, one of the most controversial films of all time was released. It included bestiality, incest, graphic nudity, cannibalism, and famously, it showed the actress Divine genuinely eating dog faeces. I am of course talking about Pink Flamingos. Variety called it “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made”, even positive reviews like that of Nick Schager refer to it as “an all-out assault on good taste”, but despite all this, it was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2021. Since 1972, it has become a cult classic, beloved by many in the LGBTQ+ community, and is one of my favourite films. The question is: why? Why has its purposefully shocking and offensive material endeared people to it?
Many films set out to shock their audiences in a bid to be different, to be talked about. What sets Pink Flamingos apart is its honesty. This is not a cash grab concocted by studio executives, but a labour of love created on a shoestring budget by a group of misfit friends, many of whom were gay, some of whom struggled with addiction, and all of whom had been in some way labelled as “filth” by society. As Divine puts it in one of the most quoted lines of the film, “filth is my politics!”. Pink Flamingos follows the competition between Divine and the couple Connie and Raymond to be the “filthiest people alive”, and every terrible thing they do in pursuit of this feels like an exuberant act of resistance against the people who would judge and dismiss them. In one of my favourite scenes, Divine walks demurely down the street, only to enter a convenience store and proceed to smuggle a pound of raw meat out in her underwear, all while Little Richard’s The Girl Can’t Help It plays (practically with a wink) in the background. The people involved in this film own their supposed filthiness and take it to the extreme.
It also helps that Pink Flamingos is incredibly funny. The humour ranges from the absurd to the satirical, but every line is intelligent and witty. Crucially, too, the film is good-spirited. The audience is always invited to laugh at the unspeakable and revel in the taboo-breaking. Unlike other self-proclaimed shocking films, this one does not seek to torture the audience or, indeed, the characters. It is expertly crafted to give us some distance from the terrible things we are seeing onscreen – the dialogue is flowery in the most awkward and jarring way imaginable, and the performances are equally stilted, alternating between emotionless and wildly over-the-top. At one point, Raymond, with deadpan delivery, admits to fronting money “to a chain of heroin pushers in inner-city elementary schools.” Meanwhile, in another scene, Divine stops just short of maniacal laughter as she confesses to lesbianism and blood-fetishism. We cannot take anything seriously, and it’s a breath of fresh air. There is, however, one serious exception. There is a scene of unsimulated animal cruelty in the film, which I feel took things too far. No amount of comedy can detach us from real harm being caused, but this is my only criticism of the film.
In a word, Pink Flamingos is camp. Actors stumble over their lines in the final cut, every character is melodramatic and larger-than-life, gender is exaggerated and played with, and the whole thing is beautifully earnest, even as the characters scream profanities and commit obscene acts that have never been repeated onscreen since. It gleefully parodies and reclaims the stereotypes that have long plagued LGBTQ+ people, and even half a century later it is absolutely liberating to watch.