Velma Von Tussle is well aware of her stone-cold foxiness, and wields this power like Thor slinging mjolnir at his enemies. Humble pie is not a part of her diet. This is Miss Baltimore Crab we’re talking about, after all. She’s been bringing the sex appeal to Charm City for decades. And in her mind, she’s never relinquished her crown to these younger pretenders to the throne.
She also happens to be a bigot, a sizeist, an all-around vainglorious vixen, and the wicked witch antagonist of the 2007 film version of Hairspray. While she’s certainly well aware of her looks, declaring “I’m blonde and beautiful” as a simple statement of fact, she sidesteps accusations of bigotry and snobbishness with thudding tone-deafness—”You can say I’m a bigot, but it just isn’t true. Look, I love Sammy Davis, and he’s black and a Jew!” Oof!
Nevertheless, the Force is strong with this one. Velma’s everlasting appeal to me comes from the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer’s delicious performance. Like Velma, Michelle is also no stranger to stone-cold foxiness. The difference is Michelle can shelf her own humbleness to play Velma’s narcissistic bombshell act. She’s sensational as the platinum bad girl, extravagantly done up in sixties-era Jackie O attire and a glorious bouffant hairdo.
The role provides Michelle ample opportunity to act with three of her best physical assets: her expressive eyes (constantly rolling derisively at every character unlucky enough to cross her path), pouty lips (utilized to their maximum pout potential), and luxurious legs (especially when she attempts to seduce a startled Christopher Walken). She utilizes all of her gifts to turn in memorable musical numbers, just as she did in Grease 2 (1982) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989).
My love for Velma is all sorts of wrong, but let’s be real: much of it comes down to Michelle’s innate charisma, and y’all know I’m a sucker for that every day of the week, plus twice on Sundays. Michelle doesn’t sugarcoat Velma’s cartoon villainy; instead, she revels in it. While we’re laughing along with the film’s satirical take on 1960s race relations (thank you, John Waters), Michelle makes it clear that we should be laughing at Velma, not with her. Okay, maybe we’re laughing with her a little bit when she sings with panache, “Those poor runner-ups might still hold some grudges. They padded their cups, but I screwed the judges.”
That’s Velma, living off past glories of screwing her way to greatness as Miss Baltimore Crab, one lucky judge at a time. In her mind, no other winner could ever compare. No woman will ever match her devastating combination of scorching hotness and superlative skill for baton-twirling! That’s what makes Michelle’s performance so easy to love: as hilarious as she is in the film, her expert comedic skills only serve to underscore just how bad Velma really is. She’s the worst. But so I am because dammit I love her anyway. It’s like Greg Kinnear’s character in You’ve Got Mail (1998) gleefully confessing to being turned on by a—gasp!—Republican: “I can’t help myself!”