Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Cruella coming to theaters and Disney+, we’re looking at some of our favorite extravagant and over-the-top villains from film history.
Edith Massey was the apotheosis of chaotic good: a winning and amiable character actor who’s remembered today for a screen persona that was at once kind, disruptive, and surreal. If the legendary actor Divine soared the highest in John Waters’ ’70s oeuvre, it was Massey who reinforced the weird, wild heart of his films. And when Divine was too busy headlining a Tom Eyen play in New York to appear in the third installment of Waters’ infamous “Trash Trilogy,” the director shook things up, and perennial supporting players Massey and Mink Stole got to step up and soak up the spotlight.
At first, the movie seems to belong to Stole’s Peggy Gravel, whose housewife-socialite heroine personifies coddled Karen culture decades before the insult entered the lexicon. But even this big personality must kneel before the terrifying majesty of Queen Carlotta, the shantytown ruler played by Massey. It’s nearly half an hour before she makes her entrance, seated atop a velveteen upholstered throne, carried by hunky idiots, sneering with contempt, periodically huffing jockstraps. To anyone familiar with the characters Massey had previously portrayed for Waters, it’s a shock seeing her toss aside the good-heartedness (or at least neutral bewilderedness) that was her trademark. The queen is unique to the filmographies of both artists.
Carlotta, in her white dress and red wig, is all unfettered id: an absurdist fascist prone to grand proclamations, surreal experiments (like backwards day), and decadent delicacies (like a breakfast of pizza and marshmallows). There isn’t a single villainous behavior that she doesn’t delight in, alienating her daughter (Mary Vivian Pearce), exploiting her henchdaddies for sex, and using murder and sexual assault to unmake her subjects. Carlotta is simultaneously a wicked Disney queen and a Sergio Leone antagonist that Klaus Kinski would have played, and you can draw a line from Massey’s performance to other corrupt monsters like Jabba The Hutt and Donald Trump. She is all the worst tendencies of mankind given free rein. She rules with an iron fist and an abject absence of impulse control. The basest of Waters villains have at least a trace of relatable motivation or ideology; the engine that drives this shameless monster is a pettiness that feels all too real.
Mortville, the monarchist state Carlotta presides over, exists like the Blair Witch, somewhere in the mysteries of Maryland. Traditional authority allows it to exist without outside interference. Criminals, nudists, burnouts, and artists all live in Mortville free from the law, subject only to the irrational, surreal, and often predatory whims of its sovereign. Carlotta’s enforcers summon queer menace, clad in fishnets, fetish wear, and firearms, and she exults in their willingness to exhibit themselves for her.
All the while, the streets seethe with the oppressed masses waiting for their day of revolution. All of Waters’ films are deeply political, but this one goes further and farther. It’s a Shakespearean drama of succession with a matriarchal spin. Presiding over it all is Massey’s Carlotta, a quotable infection that potentially lurks in the hearts of everyone, ready to see some private areas and get it while she can.