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Penny Massey

Penny Massey

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"The eerily unhinged Edith Massey, a performer so genuinely eccentric it's not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse." This description, from Newsweek's review of "Polyester" (1981), aptly sums up Massey's appeal. Her appearance was somewhat off-putting: short, squat, snaggletoothed, bizarrely made-up and coiffed. But her sweet nature made her a Baltimore landmark and one of the most beloved stars of cult filmmaker John Waters' early films. Massey's early life was something out of Dickens by way of Damon Runyon: born in an orphanage, she made her way to Hollywood in the 1930s and worked--she claimed--as a tap-dancer. During WWII, she employed herself as a b-girl, "entertaining the troops," and wound up as a house madam in Illinois. When the cops closed in, she fled to Baltimore and wound up by the late 60s as a barmaid in Pete's Tavern, a dockside dive where she was discovered by neophyte filmmaker Waters. Massey made her film debut playing herself in Waters' "Multiple Maniacs" (1971). It was only a bit part, and she made little impact. True "stardom" came with the cult classic "Pink Flamingos" (1972), wherein Massey portrayed The Egg Lady: as Divine's mother, she sat in a playpen...

"The eerily unhinged Edith Massey, a performer so genuinely eccentric it's not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse." This description, from Newsweek's review of "Polyester" (1981), aptly sums up Massey's appeal. Her appearance was somewhat off-putting: short, squat, snaggletoothed, bizarrely made-up and coiffed. But her sweet nature made her a Baltimore landmark and one of the most beloved stars of cult filmmaker John Waters' early films.

Massey's early life was something out of Dickens by way of Damon Runyon: born in an orphanage, she made her way to Hollywood in the 1930s and worked--she claimed--as a tap-dancer. During WWII, she employed herself as a b-girl, "entertaining the troops," and wound up as a house madam in Illinois. When the cops closed in, she fled to Baltimore and wound up by the late 60s as a barmaid in Pete's Tavern, a dockside dive where she was discovered by neophyte filmmaker Waters.

Massey made her film debut playing herself in Waters' "Multiple Maniacs" (1971). It was only a bit part, and she made little impact. True "stardom" came with the cult classic "Pink Flamingos" (1972), wherein Massey portrayed The Egg Lady: as Divine's mother, she sat in a playpen sporting underwear (inspired, said Waters, by Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll") and demanding eggs in a braying voice. It was all so bizarre that it worked. Even weirder was Massey's performance in "Female Trouble" (1975) as the leather-clad "fag hag" Aunt Ida, who throws acid in Divine's face for stealing her nephew, Gator. Even playing such a cruel character, Massey's own dizzy sweetness came through. She wasn't so much an actress as a force of nature, but in "Desperate Living" (1977), Massey actually gave a respectable performance as the evil Queen Carlotta, ruler of the outlaw town of Mortville. Perched atop her throne and--for once--flatteringly coiffed and gowned, she was quite believable as a renegade royal.

Massey spent the next few years touring colleges and nightclubs with her punk band and posing for lewd--and very popular--greeting cards. She also owned a successful antique shop in Baltimore, Edith's Shopping Bag. She returned for her last hurrah in 1981 with "Polyester." Playing Cuddles, a cleaning lady who wins the lottery but remains best friends with her former employer (Divine), Massey once again tottered and brayed her way endearingly through the film. She died in Los Angeles three years later after a brief bout with lymphoma. To this day, Edith Massey presents the same question to audiences as do Mae West and Woody Allen: was she an actress or simply a personality? Regardless, it was impossible to keep your eyes off her.

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