JOHN WATERS’ films have spanned more than three decades of what he calls “good bad taste.” Although he cringes at the designation “openly gay filmmaker,” there’s no denying that his queer, campy, and subversive signature runs all through his body of work. “Gus Van Sant and I always joke about the press saying we are ‘openly’ gay,” he recently observed in an interview with The Boston Phoenix. “What’s that supposed to mean? It sounds like we’re arriving at a premiere shrieking, ‘Hey, Mary! Got any Judy Garland records?’” Although he revels in the alliterative sobriquets assigned to him by critics—“Sultan of Sleaze,” “Prince of Puke,” “Baron of Bad Taste,” and so on—Waters’ favorite epithet is the (non-alliterative) “Pope of Trash,” as he was dubbed by none other than William S. Burroughs.
One of Waters’ earliest and most enduring sources of inspiration was the Wicked Witch of the West, with whom he has an abiding identification:
I have been copying Margaret Hamilton my whole life, and I am proud to admit it. The Wicked Witch of the West, the jolie laide heroine of every bad little boy’s and girl’s dream of notoriety and style, whose twelve minutes of screen time in The Wizard of Oz can never be topped. And her outfit! The Wicked Witch inspired my lifetime obsession with wearing weirdly striped socks (Tim Burton does, too). I never did get to meet Margaret Hamilton before she died, but she did send me a personally autographed Wicked Witch of the West photo, and the monogram “WWW” followed her signature. What an iconic monogram! Did her towels have “WWW” on them? Her sheets?
Waters describes himself as a “cult filmmaker whose core audience consists of minorities who can’t even fit in with their own minorities.” While he can hardly escape the conundrum that, although he is a cult star and a favorite of the midnight-movie circuit, his mainstream success has rendered his underground status quaint. What’s more, the advent of Jerry Springer and TV trash along with the popularity of reality programs have made audiences more accustomed to sleaze and devalued its shock value.
Still, the international notoriety of Pink Flamingos (1972) gave Waters the momentum to advance his craft in the independent film industry. Starring his zaftig, cross-dressing Baltimore friend Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine, Pink Flamingos came in at number 29 on the list of “50 Films to See Before You Die” on a 2004 BBC program in the UK. The Village Voice called it “ten times more interesting than Last Tango in Paris.”
The success of Pink Flamingos led to the casting of Divine in 1974’s black comedy Female Trouble, about the liberation, tribulations, and crimes of Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home on a rampage when her parents don’t get her black cha-cha heels for Christmas. The film’s success led to higher budgets, more professional actors, less stilted performances, and “stunt casting” of familiar celebrities, such as Tab Hunter, who made an appearance (along with Divine, as Francine Fishpaw) in 1981’s Polyester. That movie was even shown in “Odorama,” complete with scratch-and-sniff cards, which were a tribute to William Castle’s literally spine-tingling The Tingler (1959) and other cheesy movie house gimmicks.
Hairspray (1988), perhaps Waters’ biggest mainstream hit, starred Divine as the overweight hausfrau Edna Turnblad, along with Ricki Lake, Sonny Bono, and Debbie Harry. This begat a franchise that included the 2002 Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical version, starring Harvey Fierstein as Edna. The 2007 musical film version of Hairspray, directed and choreographed by Alan Shankman and featuring John Travolta in the Divine role, went on to become the fourth highest-grossing musical in U.S. cinema history.
With the success of the original Hairspray, Waters had become multiplex friendly and followed up with the diabolically wicked Serial Mom (1994) starring Kathleen Turner in the title role of a suburban housewife who gives a whole new meaning to “family values” when she goes on a homicidal rampage. Waters’ Pecker (1998) is a sweet-natured comedy, set and filmed in Baltimore’s Hampden district, starring Edward Furlong as the title eighteen-year-old boy who, when not working in a sandwhich shop, takes edgy photographs of his family and friends. Over the past decade, Waters followed up those films with Cecil B. Demented (2000), starring Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff, and the raunchy ensemble sex-comedy A Dirty Shame (2004).
Now a sprightly 63, Waters has come a long way from the edgy environs of Baltimore. He accompanied the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau to gala events when they served together on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 (“I fondly recall whispering to Jeanne Moreau, ‘More free food!’ every time we had to attend black-tie dinners”), and he participated in the “wonderfully insane dinner party salons that the late Roddy McDowell used to give for the most bizarrely mixed guest list ever.” In his new memoir Role Models (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a hilarious tribute to a select roster of his quirky heroes—from crooner Johnny Mathis to ex-Manson family bacchante Leslie Van Houten—Waters sounds a bit like a queer George Carlin chilling out over a dry martini.
Waters currently divides his time between homes in Baltimore, New York, Provincetown, and San Francisco. After winding up a long tour promoting Role Models, he spoke to the me by phone, from Provincetown, where the annual International Provincetown Film Festival was in full swing.
Michael Ehrhardt: How does it feel to be back in P’town?
John Waters: Terrific! I wrote a lot of Role Models while in Provincetown. I really love it here and feel right at home. I go riding down Commercial Street, and fans wave. The locals are used to seeing me. It’s great to go around on bike, because you don’t have to talk to people if you’re not in the mood. I’ve been coming here since I was nineteen.
ME: Has the town changed since your early years there?
JW: It’s really amazing how Provincetown somehow stays the same. It’s always been a great film town. The Art House Cinema has always shown really good, cutting-edge stuff and foreign films. I was the first recipient of the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival in 1999. I’m now on the advisory board. There are no more hippies. Everything was always expensive here, but it was more bohemian years ago. There was a bar called Piggies, totally mixed, gay and straight, but it was outside of town and everyone had to walk home, and everyone would just have sex in the graveyard along the way. I mean, those days will never happen again. The only things being erected are more ugly condos.
When I first arrived here, I had a girlfriend at the time. That’s how long ago it was! We shared an apartment for a couple of weeks in a building on Bradford Street in 1964, and the landlord tried to fuck us both! I loved the people here. I found an apartment and got a job at the East End Bookshop, owned by Molly Malone Cook and Mary Oliver. Then in 1967, I came back and was offered a full-time job at the Provincetown Bookshop.
I even lived in this wonderful tree fort, with a rope ladder and small apartments. Some crazy person constructed it; it had no roof, so if it rained you got soaked to the bone. It was owned by Prescott Townsend, who must have been in his late seventies and was probably from a very wealthy Boston family; he was an early gay liberationist who would ride around on a small motorcycle on the beaches and hand out gay liberation material to people. Mink Stole was going to marry him. Prescott would let you live in his tree fort if he liked you, and you got free hot dogs. Certainly there were fewer lesbians here back then. Everyone’s become compartmentalized today, and I’m against all separation. That’s the big difference now. I’m a big butch-lesbian hag. I love the ones with chips on their shoulders and heavy attitude. They’re my real favorites.
ME: Hopefully, Role Models will knock Laura Bush’s memoir off the top of the New York Times bestseller list. How can you explain anyone so soporific getting on the list?
JW: Well, she’s the most appealing one in that family, and she promotes literacy and reading; and her daughter does charity work. You gotta give her credit for sleeping with that husband of hers. That can’t be easy.
ME: When you were in high school, you always wanted to hang with the cool juvenile delinquents. How does it feel being a sexagenarian delinquent?
JW: Well, I’m sometimes surprised to have made it this far. I guess now I can attract, uh, guys who are into gerontophilia—which is a really ugly word. But, old chickens make the best soup! I prefer being a “filth elder.”
ME: You’ve stated: “I’m a Swiss person trapped in an American’s body. Obnoxiously on time, overly prepared.” How do you chill out?
JW: Well, I actually live a very structured existence. Order is important to me. It brings me happiness. Which makes my assistants insane. I get up at 6:30, read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as The New York Post and The Daily News, along with my tea and toast. I subscribe to lots of magazines, including your Review, The New York Review of Books, and BUTT, which is actually a fairly intellectual gay magazine. I get a hundred-and-some magazines a month, although that’s dwindling. Then I write until around 11 a.m. Next, I get on my bike and ride to the beach. Sometimes, I get a ride to Brush Hollow Beach. I still hang out at the Provincetown Bookshop. I look in their big display window every day. At the end of the week, on Friday nights, I might go out to a bar for a drink.
ME: One of your bios states that you liked to perform puppet shows when you were about ten, and went on to stage avant-garde, violent Punch and Judy shows for birthday parties. True?
JW: Well, they were experimental. I was always trying to create new effects, and they didn’t always work out. The kids booed me! Sometimes they were disasters, like the time I tried special lighting effects and started a fire.
ME: You went to a Roman Catholic high school in Baltimore, and have said, “Thank God I was raised a Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.” Your film Multiple Maniacs is perhaps most famous for its blasphemous content. In one scene a “religious whore” (Mink Stole) fucks Divine anally with a set of rosary beads in a cathedral, while reciting the stations of the cross. Do you attribute your subversive sensibility to those years under the authority of priests and nuns?
JW: Yes. They discouraged every interest I ever had. When I discovered that a group of men reported that one of the Christian Brothers had sexually abused them over the years, I felt let down. I was even rejected by the child molesters at my school! But with all the scandals and cover-ups these days, the Catholic Church is trying to catch up to modern times, like reconsidering the infallibility of the Pope. It took them a long time to get away from the concept of Limbo, where unbaptized babies hang out until they can get in Heaven. I believe in the Resurrection, the only thing I’ve ever been ever taught that sounds like a good idea.
ME: You dedicate an entire chapter of Role Models to convicted Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, whom you believe should be paroled. Don’t you think she’d be totally disoriented from being out of society for forty years?
JW: Absolutely not! I don’t make any jokes about Leslie. I treat her with respect and take that chapter seriously. I regret treating the Manson killings as an in-joke in my earlier films. Leslie’s paid in full for her crime, and she’s completely rehabilitated and fit for society. I believe in rehabilitation. She was out of her mind when she was with the family. That’s over. She’d do very well in the outside world; she has kept up with politics and current events, and reads newspapers and magazines. She’s been a model inmate; she teaches illiterate prisoners to read. She recognizes the horrible things she did when she was under Manson’s influence and has total remorse for them.
ME: In a review of the 25th anniversary re-release of Pink Flamingos, Gus Van Sant notes how it was not uncommon in the 1970’s to use the phrase “the Baltimore æsthetic” to describe the low-budget production values of your films: “It is all part of the lowball-punk, fuck-it-who-cares-and-who’s-gonna-know-anyway ground rules of the Baltimore æsthetic.” Is that an accurate description?
JW: Oh, yes! Baltimore is unique and still a great place to film. I still live there off and on. I’m always looking for locations that inspire me. When we filmed A Dirty Shame there, we shot around different neighborhoods at about thirty locations. The families whose homes we used were great. We’d put fake anuses and penises on the trees, and the families came by to pose for pictures.
ME: I think casting Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom was brilliant. The character’s like Martha Stewart on anabolic steroids. Who was she based on?
JW: I think there’s a little bit of Serial Mom in everyone. Like people who insist on not wearing white after Labor Day. My own mother, for one. For instance, I can’t stand people chewing or cracking gum, or doing their stetching exercises or yoga at the airport. Those are my pet peeves. I don’t mind exercise, but that’s a private activity. And I really hate people who go on an airplane in sloppy jogging outfits. That’s a major offense today. And I can’t abide people who bore you by talking about their food allergies and special diets, like vegetarians. Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as murdering them.
ME: What did you think about John Travolta playing Divine’s role in Hairspray? That was queer casting! He looked like an obese Anna Magnani.
JW: Well, we decided it wouldn’t be a good idea for Travolta to do Divine. That would have been all wrong—if not impossible. Divine was so unique. So, John decided he’d play Edna as a woman who was once a great beauty in her youth and gradually became obese when she became a housewife. And I think John pulled that off very well.
ME: I’ve read that plans for a sequel to the movie musical Hairspray have been scrapped. True?
JW: Yes. It was supposed to be a follow up to the story, called Hairspray II: White Lipstick; but Travolta wasn’t into doing sequels, and Zac Efron would be too old for his part—and we couldn’t get it produced without him. So, we felt it was best to leave well enough alone.
ME: You state that you’d never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read. Any exceptions?
JW: Well, there are exceptions to every rule.
ME: You write that Tennessee Williams’ story collection, One Arm, was a spiritual breakthrough for you.
JW: Yes! He saved my life. I love everything he’s written, even the bad stuff. Bad Tennnesee is a lot better than his contemporaries’ good stuff. Rupert Everett has played the lead in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore in drag. Divine and I used to watch Boom all the time. Divine was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor in the movie version of Milk Train, which starred Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter on Broadway, and then starred Elizabeth Taylor as the rich widow and Richard Burton as the Angel of Death in the movie version directed by Joseph Losey, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Williams said that of all the films made of his plays, that was the best one.
ME: Yes, I know it! It includes Noël Coward camping it up in the part of the Witch of Capri.
JW: It’s the best failed art film ever. I show it to future dates, and if they don’t like it, I never see them again.
ME: I was really surprised to read that your role model Johnny Mathis was a longtime Republican. Did he give any clue about his reasoning on this matter?
JW: No. I didn’t go there. As I’ve written in the book, I knew it, but sort of hoped it wasn’t true. Members of my immediate family are Republican. I was shocked when I learned that one of my longtime assistants was a Republican. And even Tab Hunter, who I advised to come out, was a Reagan-era Republican. I try to be philosphical about this, and nonjudgmental. I was shocked when I heard that Elton John performed at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding. Then I figured, “Great! Elton can donate that million dollars to help fund AIDS research, or get gay marriage legislation passed.”
ME: You’re on record saying that GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) should lighten up about their criticism of films like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno and Ticked-off Trannies with Knives. Do you think they’re become too PC?
JW: I’m one of the only people in the world that loved Bruno. I thought it was fucking hilarious, even better than Borat. And the other movie is quite funny—why should trannies be off-limits? I’m all for GLAAD, but the gay community has got to lighten up! When I was young, gay people had wit and irony. I think that all my films are politically correct, though they appear not to be. That’s because they’re made with a sense of joy. This is gay pride! If we can laugh at the worst things that happen to us because of our sexuality, we’ll be the strongest minority of all, proud to be illegal, proud not to be like everybody else. Instead of “act up,” I’m for “act bad.” Let’s embarrass our enemies with humor.
ME: On the issue of gay marriage, you haven’t been the biggest fan of this “heterosexual” institution. Am I right?
JW: I would never vote for somebody who was against gay marriage. I think we’re going about it the wrong way, and the battle is really being fought the wrong way. Of course I believe you should marry whomever or whatever you want. It’s a basic civil rights issue. But don’t call it “marriage.” I think we should change the whole approach to the fight. I think putting it up for a vote is all wrong. Do you think that in the past if they put integration up to voters that it would have passed? They’re never going to win by a vote, because our country is deeply homophobic. Or let’s fight for heterosexual divorce to be illegal.
ME: The only cultural venue you haven’t conquered yet is the opera house. Can you envision any of your films on that stage?
JW: I think Pink Flamingos would make a great opera because there are so many over-the-top opportunities to create arias.
ME: I can see the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in the Divine role! Maybe you can get the gay composer David del Tredici to write the music. What are your future projects?
JW: I’m always working on new ideas and trying to get them produced. Although in this economy I don’t know anyone in America that’s getting five- to seven-million dollars to get an independent film made.
I do have a movie called Fruitcake ready to go, but it’s fallen through a couple of times. It’s a children’s Christmas adventure film about a family that steals meat. They’re door-to-door meat salesmen, which we have in Baltimore, who knock on your door and say, “Meatman!” You say, “I want two porterhouse steaks and a pound of ground beef.” And then they shoplift it for you, bring it back, and you pay half of what’s on the label. The young son, named Fruitcake, runs away from home during the holidays, after he and his parents are busted for shoplifting food. He meets up with a runaway girl, who was raised by a gay couple and is searching for her birth mother. Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey would have starred in it. The people who paid me to write it liked it, but now the production company is no longer there.