Originally appeared in Razorcake #117, Aug./Sept. 2020
Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
Illustrations by Codey Richards
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One Punk’s Guide to John Waters by Billups Allen
One rainy weekday, my friend and I went to a small Baltimore shop specializing in mid-century antiques called Hampden Junque. The store is next to a building adorned with a three-story-high pink flamingo. The pink flamingo acts as an unofficial mascot of the city. You’ll see them a lot, especially if you patronize small restaurants, junk shops, and bookstores. A flamingo is a nod to cult filmmaker John Waters, a Baltimore native who uses the city and its residents as the backdrop for his transgressive comedy films. His film Pink Flamingos (1972) is tag-lined as “an exercise in poor taste.” Its offenses include rape, murder, incest, cannibalism, cop killing, bestiality, necrophilia, and sadism. And yes, as I mentioned, it’s a comedy. The movie is loud. People scream their lines most of the time. It’s often kinda gross. Its conventions sink way below an acceptable level of filth and obnoxious behavior without being prurient. Most of the actors look like they are performing on a dare. Maybe even under duress. It triumphs in anarchy. It dares you to enjoy it.
I first saw Pink Flamingos at The Key Theater in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. during a twenty-fifth anniversary screening in 1997. I was a fledgling film buff, enough of one at the time to trust the theater’s taste in programming. I was adventurous enough to have sought out “cult” films with a reputation like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Ken Russell’s Whore (1991). I had also seen Waters’s 1988 hit Hairspray and followed his career to Serial Mom (1994). Flamingos had a freshly minted MPAA rating of NC-17.
Yet the film’s sleazy reputation lurked in dark alleys for twenty-five years. I was actually scared of it when I sat down to watch it. I had no idea what to expect. The fear of the unknown prevailed: what could be ensconced in this film that would cause people to revile it for so long? The film contains a subversive atmosphere outside of the outrageous themes. The 16mm film stock and wobbly sound editing lend the film a documentary feel, as if the audience is privy to conversations they’re not supposed to be a part of. It seemed to me the characters could discover I was there and pull me into the story at any minute. It forced me to form likable alliances with despicable people. I laughed a lot. I definitely thought more about it when I left the theater. In the end, I wanted to be a part of it the same way I wanted to make the walk down a long and scary alley to get inside Washington D.C.’s Hung Jury Pub many years earlier to see my first live punk show.
Inside Hampden Junque we ran into actor Lawrence Gilliard Jr. Normally I don’t know what to say to famous people, but he was very friendly and Junque is a tiny store packed with shelves of neat stuff. The store has posters from many eras of Waters’s career. Lawrence and I bonded briefly over the variety of John Waters-related memorabilia. Waters is known for his generous nature, particularly when it comes to supporting bookshops around Baltimore. It’s not unlike him to stop by and autograph a few things for the benefit of an independent store.
Gillard was most enthusiastic when I asked about his small role in Waters’s film Cecil B. Demented (2000). Gilliard had a major role on The Wire, one of the most popular television shows in history. But he was energized when I mentioned his supporting role in a film he acted in eighteen years ago. He was aware of what you discover quickly in Baltimore: to be close to John Waters is to be close to a minor deity. He is a hero to the punk, unruly, and unclean struggling to remain relevant in Trump’s America. Pictures and paintings of him are prominently displayed in bookstores and restaurants all over the city. Waters’s career has pushed the boundaries of and questioned the sincerity of modern behavior. His films create lovable characters out of perverts and criminals. They question rational behavior as fetishistic. And, if you’re in Baltimore long enough, Waters himself can often be spotted. He still lives there and frequents the bars and stores. He’s as unlikely a figurehead as you could ask for, but he champions Baltimore to the world, and Baltimore appreciates it regularly.
Still, Waters and Baltimore arrived at their love affair after the end of a long road.
John Waters was born in Baltimore in 1946. He was raised in a middle-to-upper-class neighborhood and lived most of his life in the city he would become synonymous with. As a child, he was a fan of the puppet show Punch and Judy. He made his own puppets and produced shows elaborate enough for him to be hired for children’s parties. His private education instilled an early interest in art and books, but Waters was drawn to the seedier side of life and eventually into Martick’s, a beatnik bar where he met some of his future collaborators in both crime and film.
Waters drank in the alley with his neighbor and eventual collaborator Glenn Milstead, who later became well-known as his stage persona Divine. As teenagers, the two had a penchant for shoplifting books, records, clothes, and whatever else they felt they needed. Milstead had a knack for scams, particularly getting credit in false names. He threw elaborate parties—affairs with flowers, catering, and drugs—using his parent’s names for the bookings and then just ripped up the bills when they arrived at home. These parties were the beginnings of identifying allies for the production of films.
Waters also developed some unfathomably clever scams, like wearing a torn pair of tennis shoes to high-end department stores and claiming they were damaged on the escalator. He complained until they gave him money for a new pair. Waters surmised in his book Shock Value (1981) that many of his and Milstead’s scams worked because people didn’t want to deal with them and would give in just to get rid of the odd couple. This ability to wedge himself into a confrontation showed early creativity and served him well when he made the leap to film.
The 8mm Camera
After World War II, the advancement of camera technology left space in people’s lives for pursuits such as photography. Leisure time became a trait of suburban lifestyles and the post-World War II generation of children came up looking for things to do. The widespread introduction of affordable 8mm cameras for capturing family moments also inspired a generation of kids to get out in the yard and tell a story.Waters’s first two short films were shot on 8mm film. From the start of his foray into movies, Waters’s inclination to push the boundaries of bad taste was a prevalent theme in his work. He made actors out of his pool of friends and acquaintances. This stable became known early on as the Dreamlanders. Waters made his first film at eighteen, 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. The film features long-time collaborator Mary Vivian Pearce. The seventeen-minute narrative follows the story of an interracial couple joined in matrimony by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The film cost thirty dollars to make and was shown in a local coffee house. It may seem like inauspicious beginnings, but in the age before the internet and before the indie film explosion of the ’90s, there were few outlets for independent producers to screen films. The act of Waters producing, writing, casting, filming, editing, and exhibiting his first work exemplifies a microcosm of the independent film industry in which Waters’s films would eventually flourish.
Waters attended and quickly abandoned NYU film school. He referred to his interest in education as a “charade” in Shock Value and went on to say “…after attending a few classes and realizing that we’d have to watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin until it came out our ears, I immediately decided never to attend another class.” He also mentioned his friends were kicked out of the dorm for smoking pot in the building. Waters stayed in New York while the semester carried on without him. He stole books from the school store and sold them to go to movie theaters all over the city, sometimes seeing as many as four films a day. He says this period in his life gave him a much better perspective on film than if he had attended classes. He returned to Baltimore soon after and experimented with LSD.
Waters made his second 8mm film, Roman Candles,in 1966. The film contains almost no plot, but includes themes that would become future trademarks: including a bold interest in criminality and religious iconography. This film’s more bizarre scenes include a nun drinking a beer, a drag queen on a motorcycle, and a press conference with Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. The film was made to be projected by three 8mm projectors, creating a forty-minute split screen experience. Inspired by the films of Andy Warhol, it’s not his most accessible piece of work, but it does act as a landmark, establishing the standard for quality of Waters’s early pictures. Waters worked with people and materials he had access to. When his access expanded, the quality of his films increased exponentially. Roman Candles also marked the assembly of some of his constant collaborators. Although the group morphed a bit from film to film, Waters was creating his own stars among the Dreamlanders—a group that regularly acted, did production, and became a signature element of his films.
Mink Stole, a childhood friend and regular at Milstead’s parties, is a master of hyperbolic acting. Stole made her first appearance in Roman Candles, along with hairdresser David Lochary. It was also the introduction to Glenn Milstead’s persona Divine. As a three-hundred-plus pound actor, Milstead was not the obvious choice to play a Jayne Mansfield-type, but pulled it off to eventual international acclaim.
These films have recently been exhibited in museum shows in the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. These films get more attention as Waters’s work moves slowly into the context of high art.
Waters’s 16mm Films
Eat Your Makeup has a clear narrative, coming off more like a story than the experimentation of earlier work. It follows the story of a nanny (Maelcum Soul) kidnapping girls and forcing them to model in front of her boyfriend (Lochary) until they die. The twenty-seven-year-old Soul was an early muse for Waters: “I realized I had met my first real star. Maelcum Soul was her real name, and I was totally in awe of her…” She was “wearing maroon hair, chalk-white face powdered, ten pairs of fake eyelashes, and more eye makeup than any girl has ever worn anywhere in the United States.” Soul passed away before production started on the next film. “We fought our way to her funeral through the riots following Martin Luther King’s death,” Waters remembered, “and were shocked to see her laid out without her usual makeup… her mother managed to sooth mourners by pulling out eight-by-ten-inch glamour shots of Maelcum.”
Waters’s next project, 1969’s Mondo Trasho, was his first film shot with a full-length running time. This elongated undertaking required a budget. He borrowed two thousand dollars from his father and immediately cast Milstead as Divine in the lead. He described the genesis of Mondo Trasho in his book Shock Value: “I wanted to make real trash this time… and I knew Divine would make the perfect star.” The two were fans of Jayne Mansfield and Divine’s image was further cemented while trying to emulate Mansfield’s “blonde bombshell” persona. Waters refers to Mondo Trasho as a “gutter film.” Its trashy themes, raunchy music, and grainy film stock lend the film an anti-authoritarian aesthetic.
Mondo Trasho is the only film from this era made available as a home video release. The movie has little dialogue and relies mostly on music cues to drive the on-screen action. Here is an example of Waters scoring film directly from his record collection. The soundtrack includes raunchy soul and early rock’n’roll singles from artists like Ike Turner, Link Wray, and Little Richard. Also included are some heavy hitters like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. The home video is out of print and has since become a rare collector’s item, due to problems with the music rights. Securing music rights is an issue that would rear its head several times later in Waters’s career as home video became more popular. Mondo Trasho has never been re-released because the music rights are too expensive. Waters has said the music rights could cost up to a million dollars. As the rules of intellectual property become more complicated and easier to enforce due to the Internet, some of his early work cannot be shown outside of a museum setting. It is an issue he discusses regularly in books and at appearances as a warning to young filmmakers.
Similar to how Jayne Mansfield is a pop culture influence on Divine’s look, taking ideas from current events is a Waters theme apparent in his next 1970 short, The Diane Linkletter Story, a film based on the story of a newscaster whose daughter allegedly jumped off a building thinking she could fly because she was on acid. Divine played Linkletter and the short plays as a grotesque parody of a delinquency warning film on the dangers of drugs and youth culture. It’s really just a silly short, but documenting real life tragedy often comes under the purview of bad taste. The parodistic nature and context of the film being produced a day after Linkletter’s suicide was hard to defend and Waters called this piece “The worst taste thing I ever did.”
Multiple Maniacs (1970)
Pre-production for Multiple Maniacs took place in 1969. The Manson murders had been committed but the Mansons had not yet been caught. “This crime,” Waters wrote, “would have a profound influence over the entire making of the film.… I decided that Divine would take credit for the murders in the film. I figured that if the murderers were never caught, there would always be the possibility that maybe Divine really did do it.” It was the end of the peace and love movement of the ’60s and a country-wide fear of youth culture gripped the nation. African American leaders fighting for change were regularly assassinated. Groups like the Black Panthers and The Weather Underground were in the news upsetting middle class norms. Violence during protests of the Vietnam War was the norm and on the news. Waters pulled details for his films right out of the news.
In Waters’s camp, the Dreamlander team and their roles in the films were becoming solidified. The film opens on David Lochary dressed as a slightly tattered ringmaster with long whiffs of bleached-out hair forming a stylish mullet and a comely handlebar mustache, convincing people to enter a tent to see “The Carnival of Freaks.” Mink Stole can be seen in the audience. She returns later in the film to play a prostitute whose specialty is getting people off using a rosary. The general plot of the film is Lochary and his wife Divine travel around with the traveling freak show and, once the patrons are fully grossed out, robbing them at gunpoint. This plot device reflects Milstead’s and Waters’s early knack for conceiving unusual scams. The robberies keep Divine in furs and food. (Decadence is a driving force in many of Divine’s roles.) Divine’s overwhelming desire to have the finer things pushes her to commit crimes. The film ends with her being dramatically hunted for justice Frankenstein-style.
The Hays Code and the Hollywood Renaissance
By the time Multiple Maniacs was being exhibited, a code enforcing oppressive rules in the film industry’s standards was unraveling. The Hays Code was a strict list of things you couldn’t do in films, put into effect after moralists in the early 1930s decided the film industry was selling pornographic and un-American images in the movies without being monitored. This is why American films of a certain era seem particularly pious and/or devoid of controversial themes, or confusing when trying to broach or transfer controversial themes from their original texts.
The Hays Code was vaguely written to empower studios to make cuts in production. It began to erode slowly during the 1960s when younger counterculture-conscious audiences were going to the movies. Foreign films with more mature themes also found their way into America, making American movies look immature by comparison. This period is condensed into an era called The New Hollywood and is academically often associated with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Bonnie and Clyde became notorious for its portrayal of sex and violence—a relatively tame portrayal by today’s standards. Much of the sex is abstract and the most violent gun battle scenes in the film wouldn’t pass as mildly gory compared to the tamest modern horror films.
The Hayes Code worked to bully filmmakers in a similar way to the modern Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the organization putting ratings on films shown in major movie chains in America. Waters would have his share of trouble with the MPAA as he moved into making higher budget films, but up through Multiple Maniacs he was flying under the radar of mainstream success as the standard of acceptable behavior in film eroded quickly. It only took five years from the release of Bonnie and Clyde for Waters to release one of the most notorious films ever made.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Pink Flamingos has been either edited severely for content or banned altogether in several countries. The film includes characters engaged in institutional rape, sex trafficking, eating excrement, forced impregnation, selling children, and a yogi with unbelievable control of his asshole.
Similar to Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos is the story of two groups of reprehensible people antagonizing each other. Waters has a knack for daring you to root for unlikable characters. The plot of the film centers around two groups of criminals. Divine portrays Waters’s centerpiece character Babs Johnson, a criminal named by the local Maryland newspaper as “the filthiest person alive.” A local couple, Raymond (David Lochary) and Connie Marbles (Mink Stole), run a human trafficking ring where women are kidnapped and forced to have babies so the Marbles can sell them. The rest of the movie is the back and forth battle between the Marbles and Divine’s crew as each try to be more and more despicable than their previous act.
What’s so astounding about Pink Flamingos is the enduring legacy. This is a film your mom might have heard of even if she hadn’t seen it, or lied about having seen due to decorum. Part of Pink Flamingos’ longevity is attributed to years of screenings where curious audiences attended to see what all the fuss was about. Before the pre-home video era, movies like Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) were shown at midnight when college students, weirdoes, and insomniacs were anxious to take part in strange worlds through osmosis. The lure of a film uptight, “moral” people didn’t want you to see was the siren call of the ’70s late-night screening. The movie holds an illicit allure. The advent of affordable VCRs added longevity to the movie’s ability to be seen at a person’s own convenience and in relative anonymity.
Besides the various outrageous plot points, the actors found their marks as compelling people living outside of society with surprising resources. The Marbles had unorthodox hair color and deep pockets to wage war against the most despicable people on earth. Edith Massey portrayed her most memorable character, The Egg Woman: Divine’s strange mother who sits in a playpen all day waiting for the man who delivers the eggs to arrive. The characters at odds with themselves in their diegetic worlds was not the whole concept, but the idea that under a rock somewhere lurked the leftovers of American mainstream culture—a culture obsessed with façades.
One of the most stunning shots in the film is a montage of Divine shot from a car window walking along busy Baltimore streets to the tune of Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” (an example of a song Waters did not acquire the rights for). The reactions of the locals captured are actual, unscripted responses from an unsuspecting crowd. People were legitimately shocked by Divine’s outrageous makeup and carefree strut—head shorn half way up, creating a bizarre hairline. Eyebrows drawn on so the curve continues up the forehead. Loads of eye makeup. The reactions from the crowd on the street are genuine. Divine cultivated a distorted look presented by the standards of the plot as ultimate beauty. The crew occupied streets in Baltimore filming Divine’s scenes without a film permit during a time when people were beaten up for looking half as strange.
The film continues with a series of escalating pranks between the Marbles and Divine, including the Marbles mailing her feces, Divine sneaking into their house and licking all of the Marbles belongings, and a nauseating end scene so widely discussed I’d like for this to be the first article ever never to mention it. Pink Flamingos holds a place at the top of the list of infamous cinema.
If you follow the progression of American film, people were shocked into accepting more sex and drug use in film that flashed Faye Dunaway’s upper thigh in Bonnie and Clyde. Half a decade later, Pink Flamingos introduced its audience to a man manipulating his asshole with great skill for over forty seconds. The soundtrack to the scene was The Trashmen’s “Surfing Bird.” Here is another example of Waters using his personal records as a soundtrack. The film has an excellent soundtrack of raunchy, echo-laden singles that inspired the early punk movement like “The Swag” by Link Wray. In his book Mr. Know-It-All, Waters continued to warn young filmmakers about the importance of obtaining music rights. “I may have shoplifted those early 45 rpm records, but the publishers and writers of those garage band obscurities sure got their money back when distributors finally paid up decades later to use them legally.”
Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)
Pink Flamingos was followed by one of my personal favorites, Female Trouble,a film celebrating Waters’s long-standing interest in serial killers. The film contains plenty of the signature low-class anarchy with a bit more focus on the killer’s storyline. The plot follows the life of outlaw Dawn Davenport (Divine) from her time as a defiant suburban youth leading a crew of young women doing small crimes, eventually ending in a killing spree. While the protagonists are sociopathic criminals, their brash anger towards conventional suburban living makes them extremely likable to punk rockers tired of the quiet of the suburbs.
Davenport becomes impregnated by Earl Peterson (also played by Divine) and is forced to exist on the sleazy side of Baltimore where she strips, works as a waitress, and commits petty crimes to get by. Davenport’s feral child grows up to be a belligerent teen played by Mink Stole. Stole’s angry wailing of her dialogue and undersized dress (presumably because she never got another one after childhood) stands out as she screams some of the best lines in the movie: “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls.”
Another memorable quote comes from Edith Massey and also appears in full at the beginning of the first Sloppy Seconds album. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries; the world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” This sentiment is supported by much of Waters’s work up to this point. The headline is always that it’s better to die a freak than live a normal life. In the world of Female Trouble, hetero-normative behavior is considered boring and unappealing. The standard for luxury and beauty is centered around the Lipstick Beauty Salon run by David Lochary’s character Donald Dasher. Lipstick is a chaotic place where complaints by normative people are ignored and mocked. Lochary even encourages Dawn Davenport’s crime sprees, insisting that her crimes and brand of anarchy are beautiful.
Sadly, David Lochary passed away before the production of Desperate Living. Lochary ignored an injury sustained while on PCP. He eventually bled to death. He had been a major contributor to Waters’s work, not only as an actor, but also doing hair and makeup for many of the productions. It’s a sad testimony to the edgy lifestyles suggested in the films. Lochary would not be the last Dreamlander to pass early.
Divine was also notably absent in the film. Divine’s notoriety was spreading, performing in a theater during the production of Desperate Living. The remaining Dreamlanders assembled for the filming. Produced almost entirely in a studio, Desperate Living has a more focused look. Waters described the film as a “lesbian melodrama… dealing with mental anguish, penis envy, and political corruption.” He said the movie was made with “neurotic adults with the mentalities of eight-year-olds in mind.” The film follows irrational upper class suburbanite Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole). Gravel kills her husband in a fit of hysterical rage and is helped by her four-hundred-pound maid Grizelda (Jean Hill). After relocating to a fictional town called Mortville where criminals and people with strange fetishes can hide from the world, the social standing between Grizelda and Peggy dissolves. The two become lovers.
The common Waters plot trope of a group of misfits against the world exists here, but the movie has a different tone focusing on the drama between Grizelda and Peggy. Part of this shift is due to Divine’s absence and Mink Stole’s hyperbolic acting becoming a focus of the comedy. Stole bellows disgusting lines of dialogue with operatic emotion and efficiency. In spite of how ridiculous the actual situations of the film—and how Waters’s unique brand of disgusting humor is prominent through the film—the movie has also been noted among early feminist texts as a film showing empowered women walking away from their nuclear family-imposed roles.
Desperate Living, like many of his films up to this time, made money by following a tried-and-true, loose business formula. Waters utilized a guerilla philosophy of filming by choosing thrifty methods of shooting, like stealing shots without a permit when he was able. He was also economical with his sets and props. Despite this formula which had served him well over the past years, Desperate Living did not attract the late-night movie crowd as well as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Home video dispersed the midnight movie crowd to individual living rooms where they could rent a video for a dollar and act any way they wanted without reprisal from fellow movie-goers. People were also becoming less easily shocked. But the ’80s were a turning point for Waters’s resources. The quality of his work was reaching a tipping point where he would be able to compete in a mainstream market.
1981 was a big year for Waters’s vision. Polyester was given a bigger budget. The movie had a star attached, ’50s heartthrob Tab Hunter. Hunter’s celebrity clout had slightly diminished from his time as a teenage heartthrob, but he was still a notable celebrity, and a hero of Waters personally. The production values were noticeably higher, beginning with the first shot: an aerial view of suburban Maryland. Here Waters sets the scene for a story lurking beneath the clipped hedges and backyard swimming pools of suburbia. No longer were Waters’s anarchic characters let loose on the world. Polyester finds them bubbling under the surface of a suburban façade.
During the production of Polyester, Multiple Maniacs was declared to be “obnoxious, but not legally obscene” by a Maryland judge during a lawsuit over a late-’70s screening. Polyester’s new and refreshing elements bring relatability to the surface that were hard to come by in Waters’s earlier films. Suburban angst inherent in the characters brings the story home for the viewer in a way that is less caustic. Whereas Pink Flamingos’ success lies on the viewer’s sense of voyeurism, Polyester shows as a caricature of families you might know—perhaps not as extreme in direct behaviors—but a family dealing with everyday problems like status, drug addiction, and the oppressive nature of nosey neighbors. Whomever you root for in Polyester, they are delegated into basic structures in society that put them in a struggle between good and evil. This slight shift in character recognition had a hand in Waters’s greatest mainstream success as a filmmaker.
The film also has a hint of novelty showmanship utilized by one of Waters’s proclaimed heroes, William Castle. Castle was an early purveyor of theater gimmicks to make B-grade horror films more fun for kids. Castle invented gimmicks to bring attention to his films, like electrifying seats and having people run through theaters dressed as spooks. Waters cites Castle as inspiration for giving theatergoers an Odorama card at screenings of Polyester. Using screen prompts, the viewer scratched and discovered various unappealing smells along with the film.
Polyester also finds Divine’s persona gaining a new dimension as some of the glitz and glamour of her furs and punk dresses are replaced with suburban mom clothes and a normal-looking wig. Divine portrays a stay-at-home mom at her wits end with her kids. Her daughter is dating a criminal named Bo-Bo Belslinger (Stiv Bators) and her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue sniffer obsessed with women’s feet. Her husband Elmer (David Samson) is having an affair. Divine’s mom persona during the first part of the film exhibits a new level of acting and leads to her being swept off of her feet by the swarthy Todd Tomorrow (Hunter). Tomorrow helps change the course of her messed-up life for a while. All the immaturity desired in a Waters production are in place during Polyester, but Waters’s ability to handle bigger budgets and Divine’s elevated acting add a level of quality to the film that would pay off in his next film production.
Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste was also released in 1981, proving Waters’s skill as an author. Waters’s writing has a charm and positivity you might not expect from someone who is such a purveyor of trash cinema. Incidents in his eccentric career like these are often inherently funny, but Waters’s prose brings the stories to life. He really has a way of conveying a story. The book is mostly a diary of Waters’s time making films. His philosophy and insight into the film industry and the world around him are fascinating. An example is a segment where he casts the misfits and associates in his everyday life in his films. This idea becomes institutionalized when Waters gives advice to others who may want to utilize this technique in their own projects: “If you think you’re ugly and want to break into the silver screen, how do you go about it? …don’t bother listing all the tired one-act plays in which you starred. Concentrate on the glossy eight–by-ten that will catch the casting director’s eye. My casting agent, Pat Moran, knows ugly when she sees it, always looks for ‘special talent.’” To further his point, he admitted how a rumor caused him to cast the man in Pink Flamingos who was able to open and close his asshole on command: “I got word to him I wanted a demonstration. He showed up at my door, and I tried to be tactful. ‘I hear you have something I might be interested in’… I was totally speechless—a star was born!”
Crackpot (1986) and Hairspray (1988)
Polyester and Shock Value set the stage for Waters to elevate his reach a bit out of the cult waters he was submerged in. Waters’s second book, Crackpot, is a collection of essays and stories. Waters shows himself as an excellent historian, writing on a range of topics like how to tour L.A. without following tourist trends, the film career of Pia Zadora, his experiences conducting a film class in a penitentiary, and many more showing his interest in documenting the unique world surrounding him.
Among the essays in Crackpot is a piece called “Ladies and Gentlemen… the Nicest Kids in Town!” The article is about a local television dance show called The Buddy Dean Show. Between 1957 and 1964, the teenage dance party was a top-rated Baltimore TV show eclipsing even Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in popularity. Rock’n’roll stars performed and fashionable kids danced the dances of the day. If this all sounds familiar at all, it’s because this article is the basis for Waters’s most successful mainstream film: Hairspray (1988).
If the movie-going world hadn’t heard of John Waters due to his previous transgressions, they surely knew him after the release of Hairspray. Waters had a lot of experience making a compelling story about outsiders struggling against an oppressive society. In Hairspray, loveable teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) plays an overweight teen whose charisma lands her a spot on the popular Corny Collins Show where her body type is not the norm. Tracy is largely bulletproof from those who try to use her weight against her. She slowly amasses a team of misfits fighting to end racial segregation on the popular show. The “freaks against bullies” trope is one he’s mastered. It plays on several levels throughout the movie, most importantly, towards promoting racial equality among the teens featured on the show.
There are countless bigger-than-life characters among this cast of cult heavy-hitters alongside many of the Dreamlander regulars. Divine portrays Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s reluctant but supportive mother who eventually comes around and joins her daughter’s crusade to desegregate the show. During this time, Divine was scheduled to make a regular appearance on the then-hit TV show Married with Children. Many thought this was the opportunity Divine needed to break through to more mainstream film and television. Sadly, Divine passed away from an enlarged heart immediately after Hairspray was released. Divine didn’t live long enough to see the long-term success of Hairspray. It’s a shame because the film became a comedy classic and should really be considered an essential text exhibiting a place in time when Americans were sacrificing and fighting to make short strives in equality.
In Waters’s book Mr. Know It All, the chapter dedicated to Hairspray is called “Accidentally Commercial.” It brought Waters’s work to a new echelon of society and went on to become a successful Broadway musical. “Underneath all this cockeyed glamour lives a serious actor who wants nothing more than to work every day,” Waters said of Divine’s career. “He’s eaten dog turds, crawled through pig shit, mainlined eyeliner, eaten guts, and risked arrest by appearing in many of my films, but I’ve never once seen him throw a star fit.” If there’s any justice, the legacy of Waters and Divine will continue to grow and be synonymous with other comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy, French and Saunders, and Cheech and Chong.
You’re Only As Good As Your Next Picture
Waters’s ascent into mainstream success came with the price of struggling to continue to expound on his vision in the limited confines of Hollywood productions. Hollywood doesn’t look to produce the next cult hit; it wants low-risk stories that make money. Cry-Baby (1990)and Serial Mom (1994) are two of his more popular mainstream films, but neither reached the heights of Hairspray. Cry-Baby was seen by the studio more as a vehicle for Johnny Depp and monitored the lengths Waters was allowed to stretch the boundaries of taste to maintain a PG rating, figuring younger people were going to be the audience for the picture. Waters’s vision and mainstream cinema merged in Hairspray, but this anomaly didn’t hold in terms of box office sales.
Cry-Baby is, in part, a musical celebrating teen movies of the ’50s. The film stars and struggled with the inclusion of teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, fresh off of his iconic role as the quirky Edward Scissorhands (1990).After Depp’s success on the 1980s television series 21 Jump Street and before he became Hollywood’s enfant terrible, the studios were concerned about his image being tarnished, particularly while filming a movie with one of the most notorious filmmakers of all time.
Waters proved he could attract a mainstream audience using his underdog formula of good-hearted lowlifes battling a system placed there to keep them down. It’s a fun but seemingly intentionally hollow movie. The script is largely centered around the songs, making it more of an Elvis-style musical throwback than a commentary on individuality. And Waters’s us-against-them formula came with a price this time. Cuts to the shooting that assured a PG rating made the film sterile. Cry-Baby is a fun film to watch, but it’s hard to ignore the missed opportunities for an excellent cast to get their hands dirty.
I count Serial Mom as another of Waters’s best movies. It again follows a theme of misfits bubbling under the façade of suburban life. Kathleen Turner puts in a great performance as Beverly Sutphin, a woman who appears excessively straight and narrow but has a secret obsession with serial killers and eventually becomes one. Her horror movie-obsessed son, Chip Sutphin (Matthew Lillard) finds out and acts as her agent. Soon everyone is obsessed with Beverly Sutphin, a mother who kills people she finds distasteful. High points include Sutcliff prank calling her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole) and yelling obscenities at her. A moment that should be included as an icon of great moments in film shows Sutcliff bashing her smug neighbor Mrs. Jenson (Patsy Grady) in the head with a leg of lamb while the overture of the musical Annie (1982) plays on her television. Red blood stains the screen as the iconic song “Tomorrow” emanates from her television.
As Sutcliff’s trial becomes a media sensation, the film also makes great commentary on the inequality fame and money bring to court cases. Waters has attended several high-profile court cases and loves true crime. Here, the movie beautifully documents the black humor inherent in these trials. The end of the story finds Sutcliff debunking all of the evidence against her one piece at a time using ridiculous counter claims and questionable techniques. She causes a known pervert’s testimony to be unreliable by opening and closing her legs so he can look up her skirt. Her new notoriety causes another stoner eyewitness to recant her testimony because the stoner thinks she’s cool. Projected alongside the realities of a real criminal court case, the end of the movie examines the way fame and money can influence crime in real life.
The Non-Profit Years
According to his recent book, Mr. Know It All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, Waters’s last studio film to make a profitwas Serial Mom. Even in the age of home video and streaming, his final three films are technically still in the red. Although they are not his most popular films, there is plenty of charm found amongst Pecker (1998), the underrated Cecil B. Demented (2000), and his final film to date, A Dirty Shame (2004).
Pecker as a commentary on perception of outsider art is a little sophomoric in plot, but the film’s humor through the expository of Baltimore’s neighborhood of Hampden as a quirky, peaceful place contains realistic insights into the minutiae of an existing Baltimore neighborhood.
The story also pits N.Y.C. art dealers against the citizens of Baltimore. The film stars Edward Furlong as Pecker, an amateur photographer whose candid shots of life in Baltimore city life become sought after by a Chelsea art dealer. Success ruins Pecker’s simple life in Baltimore and threatens to destroy his art. It’s a cute film in its earnest commentary about the down-to-earth Pecker and the problems arising when his hobby is touted as fine art in a fickle market, but it’s not as essential as some of his other films.
Cecil B. Demented is my favorite among these three later films, one that I consider among the canon of his “must-sees.” As a meta-narrative, Waters again creates a gang of miscreants you can’t help but root for. This time the main protagonist is a greasy filmmaker named Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorf). Demented hates the studio system and assembles a crew of people who agree to be prepared to die for art. Demented commits a litany of crimes while producing his big move, along the way kidnapping Hollywood superstar actor Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffin), in town to promote a banal film offending Demented’s sensibilities.
It’s hard to ignore the similarities between this story and the real life story of Dreamlander regular Patty Hearst. Hearst was kidnapped by a radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. The story of her capture and appearing to sympathize with her tormentors was major news in the early seventies and serves as an obvious influence on the film. Here again is Waters’s trope of telling stories directly from the news. Demented’s crew scheme relentlessly to stop the production of Forrest Gump 2: Gumped Again. The cast engages in a histrionic acting style creating a chaotic world where film sets are infiltrated and bombed. The anarchic acting style drives the comedy in the film, particularly Michael Shannon’s excellent interpretation of the film’s best line: “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls.” The film parodies a classic Hollywood ending seemingly inspired by the film Hollywood Boulevard (1950). Cecil B. Demented was not well received, but I think it’s among his best later films.
Up to the point of this writing, Waters’s movie career ends on one of his weakest films. I say this respectfully, as I don’t think the filmmaker is totally at fault. Society has caught up to Waters’s filth level, but not his sense of humor about filth. In A Dirty Shame, it’s the normal neighbors of the city of Baltimore who are obsessed with sex. The out in the open sexuality is actually an interesting cap on his film career, as society has evolved to a point where it doesn’t seem capable of being shocked by the sexual habits of others. The music elaborates on the ’50s sensibility associated with middle class Baltimore with the duplicity of choosing songs with loads of double entendre in them.
It’s still an enjoyable film, worthwhile for a wonderfully suspenseful session of Hokey Pokey taking place while the main character Sylvia (Tracey Ullman) visits at an elderly care facility. Sylvia is normally repressed in nature, but a head injury causes her to become sex crazed. As her “whole body in/whole body out” sequence of the hokey pokey reaches a frenzy, she places a large water bottle on the floor and puts on a strange sex show that is a perfect combination of Waters’s sense of humor and Ullman’s knack for physical comedy. There is also commentary about a D.C. couple recently moved into the neighborhood. They observe the strange events in the neighborhood and regularly mention how “real” Baltimore is on a regular basis. The point is the film has its moments. I’d rather see punks watching a lower quality Waters film than talking about sports. A bad John Waters film is better than a day of fishing.
Continued Success as an Author and Historian
During a recent live appearance, Waters expressed a desire to make another movie. It will be interesting to see how he goes about it. He seems to be trapped in the void between not being able to engage a big studio and the “been there, done that,” of self-financing low budget pictures. His personal appearances and article writing keeps his unique point of view intact and available to the world. His role as an author and observer of modern society produced two recent books not to ignore. His 2010 collection of interviews, Role Models, and his chronicle of his bizarre journey across the country hitch hiking Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America (2014) are both must-reads in his canon of work. As of late, his humor is best-expressed in the written word. Perhaps the king of bad taste has had the good taste to wait until he is inspired to make another film. There is something princely about that idea to me. Some people don’t know when to quit, or when to recognize a second act in their lives. I find him more compelling as a writer nowadays. Whether or not he’ll get to make another picture is yet to be seen, but his presence in the world is a mitzvah for the weirdoes and freaks.
Cecil B. Demented
Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters
Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, Bruce Campbell (2001)
Five Came Back, Laurent Bouzereau, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro. (2017) Netflix.
Nightmare of Ecstasy (The Life and Art of Edward Wood Jr.), Rudolph Grey, (1994)
Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, Chloé Griffin (2014)
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