Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake)
Writer/director John Waters spent so many years daring audiences not to be shocked by his provocations that the biggest shock of all was when he did an about-face with Hairspray and made a family-friendly movie with a heroine whom he dared audiences not to find adorable. Sure, Lake’s Tracy is obese, comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and has a mom who’s played by a man. Also, she’s a strident agitator for an unpopular cause (at least for early 1960s Baltimore). Then again, she’s a terrific dancer (very important, given that much of the film’s drama plays out on the set of an American Bandstand-like teen dance show), she lands the cutest boy in Baltimore, and her cause (racial integration) is just.
Lake’s performance is relentlessly upbeat and charismatic; it’s not hard to believe that someone as unlikely at Tracy becomes a star, since we’re watching the performance that made Lake a star. (Today, it’s fun to watch that performance and see in it both the empathy for others and the brassy self-promotion that would mark Lake’s career as a daytime talk show host.) Not to slight Nikki Blonsky’s fine performance as Tracy in the big-screen Hairspray musical two decades later, but the whole movie lacks the weird, funky novelty of Waters’ original. Compared to the clean-scrubbed remake, it looks almost disreputable. All it took was time to give Lake’s version back the shock value Waters used to crave.