Text © M.A.Cassata
Originally published in Cleavage Magazine October 2004
(Image): Coutresy of New Line Cinema
If you ever meet John Waters, don’t call him a cultural icon, he may be offended. After all, here’s a brilliant man whose entire career has been devoted to the bursting open wide mainstream culture. But nonetheless, from his earliest films he has been the center of controversy, acclaim, and reverence.
If you’ve never seen any of John Waters’ movies, then you may want to try reading some of his books first. You can start with his absolutely fabulously funny autobiography titled Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste. This book covers John’s life and career spanning from roughly 1946 to 1980. You’ll learn about his unusual childhood, his early influences, and the circumstances, which lead him to become a film director.
Shock Value also lends worthy insight into the making of his films up to and including Desperate Living in 1977. Chapters are devoted to Divine, Edith Massey, Hershell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer and of course, his beloved. His second book entitled Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters is an essay collection and provides even more revealing insight into his uniquely warped and entertaining view of the world— another scorchingly funny read. Most of the essays like “The Pia Zadora Story,” “Why I Love the National Enquirer,” and “How Not To Make A Movie”.
If you still have a hankering for the absurd (and we hope you do), then pick up his third book, Trash Trio. These are on his three screenplays. Following an introduction by Waters, this book includes the complete screenplays for Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the sequel to Pink Flamingos— which was never filmed, traced the story of Divine, Crackers, Cotton and Edie.
For more than four decades, the celebrated and equally controversial film director once hailed as “The Pope of Trash” by William Burrough and more recently dubbed as the original voice behind Broadway’s smash-hit musical, Hairspray has
tested the boundaries that divide the lines of culture and mainstream.
What is it that those in the know (like us) truly adore about John Water’s film? For starters, it’s uncanny knack for colorful casting and the way he combines culture and subculture themes like race, sex, glamour, class, family, celebrity, religion and media. For example, his earlier films, through 1981, relied mainly on a group of actors and crew called the Dreamlanders. The most famous member of the troupe is Divine, a 300 lb. cross dresser who passed away in 1988. Pop culture icons started to appear in Water’s films starting with the release of Hairspray, which included Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, Ricki Lake, Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora. Cry-Baby starred Johnny Depp as a juvenile delinquent marked the screen debut of Patty Hearst who shared the screen with such unlikely cast mates as Traci Lords and Joey Heatherton.
Considering what we have learned about Waters over the years, it comes as no surprise that growing up in Baltimore in the ‘50s he was not like most other children— he was obsessed by violence and gore— both real and on the screen.
With his outrageous, teetering on the edge friends, acting he began making silent 8mm and 16mm films in the mid-1960’s. He screened these early films with such titles as, Roman Candles (1966), Eat Your Makeup (1968) and Mondo Trasho in rented Baltimore church halls to underground audiences drawn— most to which were by word-of-mouth and street flyer campaigns.
Even at an early age, various film directors inspired Waters, but he never wanted to imitate their styles. He was always original in his thinking and planned to one day make the same kind of lasting impression on the viewer as he had experienced sitting in the dark Baltimore theaters. One of his favorite boyhood films was Macabre by The King of The Gimmicks director William Castle. “I remember as a child waiting in line to see his movie and filling out those fake insurance policies in case someone died of fright,” he recalls. “I thought ‘Oh my God, someone’s gonna die. This is gonna be better than a movie!’ Then the skeleton flew over the audience on a string and everyone threw popcorn boxes at it. I always wanted to feel that anarchy in a movie theater when I made my own movie. But I never could match that 600 children going crazy after seeing that skeleton.”
As his film-making talents became more polished and his subject matter even more shocking— his audiences grew larger, and his write-ups in the Baltimore papers more outraged. By the early ‘70’s Waters was making features which he managed to get shown in midnight screenings in art cinemas by sheer perseverance. His first taste of success came when Pink Flamingos (1972)— a deliberate exercise in extremely bad taste—took off
In 1973 propelled no doubt by leading actor Divine’s (Glen Milstead) infamous poodle-poop eating scene. He continued to make low-budget outlandish movies with his Dreamland repertory company. His Hollywood crossover success came knocking with Hairspray in 1988. Though his movies might now seem cleaned-up and professional, they still retain that Waters playful mischief, and reflect his life-long obsessions.
John Waters was born April 22, 1946 and has lived in Baltimore, Maryland for the majority of his life. In 1985, the city he so frequently portrayed in his movies paid tribute to its most famous resident declaring February 7, “John Waters Day.” Having a competitive edge is something the film director always understood, even at an early age. “I saw Chelsea Girls, he mused to the press recently at the New Museum discussing his rarely seen Roman Candles from the same era. “Certainly it’s an insult that they (meaning Andy Warhol) had two screens. So I had to have three. Even long before Waters picked up the lens, he possessed “the power to make regular people angry through contemporary art. It was a great comfort to me.” In fact, at age ten he learned that a Micro print he bought at the Baltimore Art Museum’s gift shop caused his friends to squirm. He jokes: “I realized art could be another thing I use against society.”
At press time, the self-described master of “good bad taste” is preparing for the release of his 12th film, A Dirty Shame starring Selma Blair as Caprice Stickles (aka Dursula Udders). Tracey Ullman and singer turned actor Chris Isaak play her parents and Mink Stole, Waters’s longtime friend (and has appeared in nearly every one of his movies) plays a character named Marge The Neuter and Johnny Knoxville of the Jackass fame is the leader of the sex addicts. The heroine of the film portrays a head injury victim with huge breasts. Waters got the idea after reading a magazine article that a small percentage of concussion victims experience carnal lust that they cannot control. “I took these ideas and reworked it— concussion sufferers band together and take over a blue-collar neighborhood.”