John Waters has mellowed, but his humor remains twisted, his sensibilities bizarre
By By Michael Ollove and The Baltimore Sun
Apr 19, 1998 | 3:57 PM
Wholesome little Appleton, Wis., slips past the passenger window without arousing any visible interest in tonight's guest lecturer. A shop selling sewing machines. A Christian bookstore. The Martin School of Hair Design. Not very promising.
The speaker fidgets in his seat for a few minutes and then abruptly turns to his student hosts. "So," he says, a conspiratorial smile spreading like a fissure across his face, "is there an underside to Appleton?"
The kids dart complicit glances at one another, as if they have studied for this very question. There's a strip bar in the area, they boast, and a healthy rate of juvenile delinquency. They tell him about the college professor who regularly dances on the grave of Sen. Joe McCarthy, one of Appleton's native sons. Their guest is delighted, and the capper is still to come. Ed Gein, one of the nation's pioneer serial killers, who transformed his victims into appetizers and ornaments, did some of his best work in these parts.
What may be more surprising is that Appleton, or a portion of it, likes him, too. A darkly clothed, stork-like figure with a Little Richard mustache, he strides onto the stage that night at Lawrence University looking as if he had stepped from a Charles Addams cartoon. His very appearance draws appreciative gasps from the full house.
In the next hour, Waters entertains his audience with the sort of aberrant musings none of them has heard from this stage before. What other speaker would recommend giving the book "Autoerotic Fatalities" to children? Who else would extol libraries not for their assembled wisdom but because "Everyone I know had their first sexual experience there?"
And what other college lecturer would admonish his student audience for being too well-behaved? "You know, it's your duty to do things to get on my generation's nerves, and you're not doing it," he tells them. "Seventies revivals are not enough."
At the end of an hour, the students burst joyfully into a crisp March night, repeating all Waters' best lines and satisfied that by just going to see the Baltimore filmmaker they had engaged in anti-social behavior. Waters cheerfully lingers for another 45 minutes, signing every last poster and photograph, as well as a tampon and bare buttocks. "John," he writes on one cheek; "Waters" on the other.
Hard to imagine young men baring their bottoms to Spielberg or Scorsese. But then, neither of those directors ever filmed a woman character (Divine in drag, actually) biting off and spitting out an umbilical cord after giving birth. Neither of them ever dreamed up the idea of having a woman undergo a sex-change operation, and then, on second thought, cut off her new equipment and throw it outside for the dog to eat.
Neither of them ever answered to the name "The Prince of Puke."
For two generations of filmgoers, John Waters has been the ultimate cinematic terrorist, a gut punch to refined sensibility and reverence for order and authority. He was punk before punk, politically incorrect (blasphemous is more like it) decades before the term existed. In trash masterpieces like "Pink Flamingos," he sneered at the values and tastes of the middle class that spawned him and - even more viciously - at the empty-headedness of the counterculture he nominally embodied. And he did so while creating the most improbable of heroes: drag queens and miscreants, deviants and the disfigured. By comparison, his outcasts made Ratzo Rizzo seem like the grand marshal of the Rose Bowl parade.
Above all, in the words of Vince Peranio, Waters' longtime set designer, "His genius is to get people to laugh at things they know they shouldn't laugh at."
Amazingly, Waters, who turns 52 on Wednesday, has now been making movies for more than three decades. (As Pat Moran, his best friend and casting director, observed to him, "Cinema is only a hundred years old.") Once dismissed as a mere curiosity, Waters has proved to be more than a Hollywood sideshow. While his comedies may never be blockbusters, they do consistently turn a profit. "Hairspray" and "Serial Mom" were even modest hits. When "Pink Flamingos" was reissued last year on its 25th anniversary, it momentarily became the second best-selling video in the country behind "Jerry McGuire."
Fans flock to his appearances; not just purple-haired, nose-ringed youngsters who weren't even alive when "Pink Flamingos" was a midnight-movie staple, but baby boomers, who often buy a Waters video or one of his three books for their children.
"That is radically different than it used to be," Waters says one January day after a signing at Borders for his new art book, "Director's Cut." "In a way, it's almost like an offering to their kids, as though they're saying, 'Hey, I'm not as square as you think.' I find that very flattering."
What may be more unexpected than his popularity is the degree of prestige accorded Waters, whose "Pink Flamingos" Variety once denounced as "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made." Waters may never get an Academy Award nomination, but his comedies are favorites at the Cannes Film Festival, and many independent filmmakers consider him both pioneer and role model. The Museum of Modern Art has enshrined "Pink Flamingos" in its film collection as a bona fide work of art, and the film archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut proudly house his papers, right alongside those of Frank Capra and Martin Scorsese.
The chaos Waters creates on screen doesn't mean he himself is some kind of cinematic accident. As much as any filmmaker, Waters is a self-creation, one who has directed his career as meticulously as any film scene. Just as he once instructed Divine to eat dog poop at the end of "Pink Flamingos" with the clear intention of making film history, he later calculated how to reach larger audiences. The goal, always, was to enable him to keep making the movies that he wanted to make.
The larger ambition was to build a life of contentment. In both matters, Waters has succeeded splendidly. Living in a house he loves, in a hometown that continues to amuse him, and surrounded by devoted friends, Waters freely attends to his obsessions. To those who complain that his later movies have none of the fury of the earlier ones, he has a ready explanation. "What do I have to be that angry about at 51 years old? I'd be some kind of an idiot if I still had that rage."
In December, Waters completed filming "Pecker," his 13th film. He may well be the happiest misfit in America.
You're here for our dirtiest day," John Waters says one brillian November morning in Hampden on the set of "Pecker." He is stylishly dressed in navy and black. That and the chill in the air render his complexion even more bloodless than usual and his ink-drip of a mustache more pronounced. His hair, once shoulder-length and stringy, is short and wispy now, with a touch of gray at the temples. But he still has that slim, Erector Set of a body and brown eyes that are strikingly sympathetic for a known troublemaker.
Today's shoot, Waters says, will involve a lesbian strip bar called "The Pelt Room" and a performer named "Mo B. Dick," who, he marvels, is the "biggest drag king in New York."
Lesbian strip bar. Pelt Room. Mo B. Dick. Drag king.
A Merchant-Ivory production this is not.
Pecker is the name of the title character, a sweet-natured teen-age photographer whose pictures of his off-kilter family and acquaintances unexpectedly propel him to stardom in the New York art world. The celebrity, however, results in unwelcome changes for Pecker and those he loves. The film, like "Serial Mom" before it, boasts some familiar screen names: Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Mary Kay Place and Edward Furlong as Pecker. "It's practically a Woody Allen cast," Waters brags.
The director, whose own photography has been enthusiastically received in art circles, says the film is not really autobiographical. Pecker does not recognize the irony in his pictures. I definitely do." But the movie, like all his films, grew out of his obsessions, old and new. The new is art; the old his fascination with fame.
In today's shooting, Waters choreographs Mo B. Dick's big scene, in which she strips for a heterosexual male audience while also yelling abuse at them. (The insults are what define a lesbian strip show, Waters explains helpfully.) He also stages a police raid on "The Pelt Room." The cops haul the strippers to their cruisers, leading to a salacious political rally on Falls Road. Alert elementary school kids happening by in a school bus during filming that day had something unusual to report at the dinner table that night.
As the day proceeds and the takes continue, Waters is unfailingly gracious to the actors and crew, cracking them up with his asides and freely complimenting them. "Mark, it's good," he says to the actor playing Pecker's father. "I haven't said anything because it's good."
Waters is known for presiding over an efficient but serene set. Patty Hearst, who is appearing in her third Waters' film, says, "What's peculiar to a John Waters set is that everyone gets along with everyone else. There are no subplots."
There's also no question about who's in charge. "You don't go off the page very much with John," says Pat Moran. "He doesn't allow much improvisation."
Even in the early anarchic films,
Waters knew precisely what he wanted. "People think we made it up as we went along, and nothing could be further from the truth," says Mink Stole, who has been in Waters' films since 1966. "John commanded a great deal of respect, and he has an intrinsic air of authority."
One reason for the relaxed feeling on his sets is that Waters enlists many of the same people on all his productions. Some go back to his cinematic beginnings, to "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket," which he filmed on the roof of his parents' Lutherville home in 1964, and "Roman Candles" and "Eat Your Makeup," in which he satirized the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie Kennedy.
"It's like a big reunion every time we do one of his films," says Vince Peranio, his set designer.
Mink Stole has flown in from Los Angeles for a small part in "Pecker." Mary Vivian Pearce, a friend from childhood, is in the film. Also on hand is Van Smith, the makeup artist with a talent for transforming attractive people into hideous creatures. (Smith says Ricci was in tears when she realized how she would look in "Pecker." "Tell her everybody looks bad in my movies," Waters instructed him.)
Any reunion is an occasion for noting absences. On a Waters' set nowadays, the absences are striking. Death has decimated the ranks of his original repertory company. Paul Swift. David Lochary. Cookie Mueller. Edith Massey. And, of course, Divine ("my Elizabeth Taylor," Waters calls him), dead now for 10 years.
"I would never have a female impersonator in my movies again," Waters says. "Not that I don't like drag queens. I just feel like I've done that out of respect to Divine. Also because I've already done that. To me the shock value of drag queens is way gone. I mean Disney makes movies about them. They're on television. They're now the Thelma Ritter character in every movie. They're what black people used to be in '30s movies, the wise-cracking next-door neighbor. The lovable maid."
The survivors have been joined by a second generation of actors, including Hearst, Traci Lords, and Ricki Lake, who was to have appeared in "Pecker" until her television production company objected at the last minute. "I was devastated," she says. "There's a rapport we have that I'll never have with anyone else. He's the big brother I never had."
Other actors are only slightly less fervent. "He's tremendously tolerant and nonjudgmental," says Kathleen Turner, his star in "Serial Mom." "He cares about people. He shares something that I think is terribly important, which is that we have much more in common than the things that separate us."
Who would have thought it? John Waters as a paragon of old-fashioned American values.
The old-timers have welcomed the new faces and even more, the bigger budgets, as high as $13.6 million for "Serial Mom." ("We don't have to steal anymore," Peranio says.) But some of the veterans do admit a preference for the rawness and fury of Waters' earlier films. "I love the grittiness of the first films, the surprise and the shock," says Peranio. "I think some of the films get a little too nice, a little too sweet."
But Peranio understands the choices Waters has made. "He's a very practical man. It was a very conscious decision to make 'Polyester' more mainstream. We wanted to keep making movies, and movies were getting more and more expensive. You had to get a wider audience in order to stay in your profession."
Did Waters sell out for larger audiences and bigger budgets? He insists not. "I just make the next movie about whatever is obsessing me that I can make funny to me and my friends," Waters says.
Waters has been offered the chance to make big-budget Hollywood movies, but from someone else's script. "I could be very, very wealthy if I wanted to make 'King Ralph 4,' but I won't even read the scripts," he says. "I'd just have a hard time directing any words that I didn't write, because it's someone else's obsession."
All his later movies have been studio-financed, but Waters is far from a Hollywood insider. "I'm an outsider who has had some modest success at playing their game," he says. "I wouldn't say I'm beating them."
So he goes to pitch meetings, listens to editing suggestions and, most irksome of all, attends screenings with focus groups. "For some reason the studio decides to listen to some idiot in mid-America who they'd never listen to in their lives." Even when a studio gives the green light to filming, executives have apprehensively taken him aside. "You're not going to make a John Waters film, are you?" they ask.
If Hollywood regards him with some trepidation, it also is open to his charms. The Motion Picture Association of America initially rejected the title of "Pecker" as sexually suggestive. Waters appeared at the appeal in Los Angeles to insist that Pecker was the character's name and nothing more. It was no more of a double-entendre than plenty of other movie titles: "In and Out" for example, or "Shaft" or - Waters' personal favorite - "Free Willy." "Pecker," Waters insisted, was every bit as innocent - or as dirty - as any of them.
The board unanimously overturned the decision. Now Waters' friends are relishing the inevitable promotional campaign when the movie is released in the fall: "See John Waters' 'Pecker!'"
John Waters lives on a serene, tree-lined road in North Baltimor in a stucco home the color of Dijon mustard. The house is stately and dignified. Still, passing through the heavy wooden doors, guests are quickly reassured by the presence of dementia. In the foyer directly ahead is the wooden electric chair where Dawn Davenport gleefully received her dose of Divine justice at the end of "Female Trouble." Leaning against the chair is the authentic-looking rifle Johnny Depp gave his director at the end of filming "Cry-Baby."
"I always saw this house as a kid, and it looked scary to me," Waters says, a remark that makes sense from a man with an
insatiable desire to be shocked.
It is a moderate January day, a month after "Pecker" has finished filming.
Relaxed in a blue blazer and checked pants, Waters is perched on a blood-red couch in his high-ceilinged living room, one spindly leg crossing the other. Interviews aren't intimidating to Waters,
because he delights in his own wit. You can imagine him keeping himself awake at night giggling at his own invention.
Waters' voice is nasal and emphatic; his timing dead-on. He also has the gift of flattering his audience. In conversation, he listens attentively and ends many anecdotes with a "You know what I'm saying?" - an invitation to join his high jinks.
Because his fascinations and tastes are so peculiarly his, it's impossible to be ready for the next thing out of his mouth, whether he's voicing his distaste for the Beatles and any film directed by David Lean or his interest in a pedophile murderer who died in Florida's electric chair.
He offers a tour of the house and bounds toward the winding staircase, like a child eager to show a favorite toy. The furnishings are tasteful though occasionally accessorized by the bizarre. In every room are dishes of plastic food - chocolates, salads, vegetables. On the walls are huge, garish posters promoting his movies in foreign languages. The poster for "Polyester," whose audiences received scratch-'n'-sniff cards, says, "Le premier film en Odorama."
On the top floor Waters keeps macabre collectibles: a painting of a ghoul done by serial murderer John Wayne Gacy, the sunglasses worn by Patty Hearst when she was arrested ("I knew he'd love them," she says), and a lock of hair from Charles Manson, a gift from a fan who knew of Waters' fascination with the Manson case. "I don't really want this in my house," he says, "but you don't throw something like this out."
Books practically spill out of every room: novels, art books and tomes on lurid crimes. Waters subscribes to about 85 magazines and reads for three or four hours every weeknight. He hardly ever watches television. "TV makes me nervous," he says. "It's like having someone in your house you didn't invite."
Waters plots his life like a script. He carries in his pocket a white index card listing what he means to accomplish that day: whom to see, whom to call, where to go, what to buy. "He's the most unspontaneous person I've met in my entire life," complains Dennis Dermoty, a critic on The Paper and one of Waters' closest friends. "There's not a spontaneous bone in his entire body."
Even his hangovers are scheduled - Saturday mornings, when they won't interfere with work.
Waters, at least, understands his compulsiveness. "What do they say in AA? 'My life is unmanageable.' My life is overly managed. However, I'm not a workaholic. I don't work on Saturdays and Sundays."
Waters remains in Baltimore, which he dubbed "the hairdo capital of the world" because "it seems real to me, and it makes me laugh." But he also spends a lot of time away, whether in Los Angeles on film business or making a guest appearance on a late-night show or flying around the world for a film festival. Five years ago, he got his own Greenwich Village apartment. "If I had to be in Baltimore 52 weeks a year, it would get on my nerves."
His friends speak of his many kindnesses, of his appearances at funerals of their loved ones and his calls when they are sick. He encourages their careers and celebrates their achievements. "His friends matter a great deal to him, and I think that keeps him grounded," says Mink Stole. "He doesn't value friends based on their financial circumstances." She mentions Pearce, a Baltimore bike courier, and Bob Adams, who runs a Fells Point thrift shop. "And me, I don't have any money," she adds.
Few have as exotic a group of friends. Elizabeth Taylor invited him to her Labor Day party last year. And he never goes to Los Angeles without visiting Leslie Van Houten, a Manson accomplice doing life in prison.
"She joined the wrong commune," says Waters. "If she'd come with us
instead, she'd probably be an executive with a movie studio today."
He's close to his family, his parents, whom he describes as George and Barbara Bush, and his three younger siblings. "Our other kids are normal," his
father, John, feels compelled to say.
Waters and his parents admit to rough times in their past, none worse than the car ride back from New York University after he was thrown out for smoking pot. Even though his father financed "Pink Flamingos," his parents have never seen it. They don't care for most of his movies, but are nonetheless proud of his success and the person he became.
"He's a loving member of the family, close to the rest of the family, and 30 years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd be able to say that," says his mother, Patricia.
His father's compliment is even more touching. "I wish I had his disposition."
Perhaps because Waters was so far out of the mainstream anyway, his homosexuality never hindered his career. He admits to three long-term relationships, the longest, he says, six years. Later, he reduces the length to five years. "I don't want to exaggerate my mental stability," he says. He's not in a serious relationship now, he adds, and he's not eager to live with anyone. "I can imagine someone saying, 'I'll hang these drapes.' It would drive me crazy."
Several friends recount an incident on the set of "Hairspray" in which one of the actors called a crew member "a faggot." Waters immediately cleared the room. "He told the guy, 'If you call anybody else a derogatory name on my movie, I'll replace you,'" Adams recalled. There were no more incidents.
There have been setbacks in his life, including his expulsion from college and his friends' deaths. He was never able to get one film made, "Glamourpuss," and the financing of another one, "Cecil B. Demented," fell apart. But, his friends say, Waters is resilient. When he can't make a movie, he's writing, doing his photography, lecturing or performing a comedy act. "He never lets the disappointments get to him," says Dermoty, the critic. "He just moves on to the next project."
Friends say Waters has always had a dead reckoning for personal contentment. As he has often said, he was able to work out his anti-social tendencies by putting them on screen. Still, as he has aged, those close to him see a greater serenity, a willingness to savor the pleasures. "He's still driven in that way with the file cards and everything," says Dermoty, "but there's a wonderful up sort of feeling about him."
Patty Hearst has seen the same thing. She recalled the final day of shooting on "Pecker," when Waters was staging a celebratory gathering of many of the film's characters in a Hampden bar. In the course of the raucous scene, the script called for Hearst's character, an art collector, to leap onto the bar, tear off her blouse and start dancing.
After several takes, Hearst noticed Waters gazing lovingly around the scene he had masterminded. "God," he said. "I'm looking at this bar, and we have male strippers and female strippers and Hampdenites and New York art types and Patty Hearst taking off her clothes.