Waters owes his career partly to the one woman who hated his films most

John Waters once wrote of his arch-nemesis, "I realized Mary Avara was the greatest press agent I could have."

It was, of course, John Waters the ironist who made that observation about Avara, who died last week at 90. No one recognized more cogently than Waters that his legendary battles with Avara and her Maryland State Censor Board were more complicated than their end result - with chunks of Waters' films on the cutting-room floor.

It is certainly an overstatement to say, as some have, that Waters would have no career were it not for the puritanical Avara. Still, there's no question that Avara gave him the patina of rebellious chic that helped him attract an audience in his early years.

"For John to be able to say `rejected by the censor board,' that gave him a badge of honor," said Steve Yeager, who chronicled Waters' career in two documentaries.

Don Walls, a longtime critic in Baltimore, puts it even stronger. Waters might have escaped notice in the '70s if not for Avara's hysterical reaction to his movies. "Without the censor board, I don't think the so-called underground movies that John was making would have gotten much attention," Walls said. "He couldn't pay for that kind of publicity."

Waters, who has been charitably silent about Avara in the wake of her death, always understood the good she did him. That doesn't mean he didn't have contempt for her, as she snipped away at such films as "Pink Flamingos" (1972) and "Female Trouble" (1974). In his 1981 book "Shock Value," he devoted two pages to the misery he suffered at Avara's hands. "Her Baltimore accent is so heavy, and she uses such bad English that I almost needed a translator to understand her. I looked at her crooked wig hat and polyester pants suit and realized there was no point in arguing style."

Avara was no more generous about Waters. She once said his name "makes my mouth feel dirty."

Time apparently did not diminish their mutual antipathy. Yeager recalls Waters' reaction in the mid- '90s when he told him he wanted to find Avara to interview her for his first Waters documentary, "Divine Trash." "He said, `My God, I haven't thought of that woman in years. Do you know what she put me through?' "

She was even more demonstrative when Yeager tracked her down at her son's Cockeysville home. "When I mentioned John's name, she went apoplectic," he recalled.

Happily for Yeager, she reserved some of that bile for his film. She tells him, for example, that she coined a special ratings designation for Waters' films.

"R.T.," she defiantly says to Yeager's camera. "Real Trash."

Seeing that scene in Yeager's film, juxtaposed with clips from Waters' own movies with their parade of eccentric, exaggerated Baltimore types, something unmistakable reveals itself about Avara, something that was there all the time.

As Yeager says, "Irony of ironies, Mary Avara comes off as a real John Waters character."

You wonder what each of them would have to say about that.

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