An editorial in The Baltimore Sun should be exactly the wrong place to pay tribute to John Samuel Waters Jr., the breaker of societal norms, the maker of cult films, the counter-culture icon. We are simply too square, too bound by convention, too bourgeois for the task. Much like Waters’ infamous 1968 16-millimeter comedy, “Eat Your Makeup,” (about a deranged nanny who forces young people to “model themselves to death”) you wouldn’t expect to see such things around here. But it turns out Waters is going mainstream over the next week, so why not join in the celebration?
The 77-year-old Charm City native is being honored through an exhibition — “John Waters: The Pope of Trash” — opening Sunday at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, a product of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars each year. But here’s the real jaw-dropper in conventionality: On Monday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time, Waters will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, along with so many others. It is the 2,763rd star to be installed, as the nearby Larry Edmunds Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard noted on social media, proudly counting Waters among its patrons and perfectly capturing the moment by quoting one of Waters’ friends, who sent the auteur a congratulatory note when the star was announced that read “closer to the gutter than ever.”
We are delighted, too, that the Charles and Senator theaters will be opening their doors Monday so that Baltimoreans can witness this event, free-of-charge through livestreaming. Thus, a representative, local sample can be closer to the gutter as well, as folks like Mink Stole and Ricki Lake say nice things in Hollywood about the creator of “Pink Flamingos,” “Hairspray,” “Polyester” and “Serial Mom” (and those are just the more socially acceptable titles). We even look forward to the inevitable evening segment on “Entertainment Tonight” as the mocker of social convention revels in a fully mainstream moment. Art, like life, is full of contradictions.
Students of cinema will likely exhaust many more years pounding out academic dissertations on the Waters oeuvre. Indeed, even using the word “oeuvre” in regard to creations like “Mondo Trasho,” which includes a scene envisioning sexual assault by a crazed foot fetishist, seems hopelessly inappropriate (“inappropriate,” now there’s a word that fits). But this is the line Waters straddles between art and exploitation, between kitsch and, well, let’s just say there’s a lot of kitsch. Still, while Waters can shock and appall, he can also normalize. His relentless pushing of boundaries was, in retrospect, ahead of its time. “We were terrorists against taste,” Waters has said about his early filmmaking days. He will get no arguments.
We only wish that Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, who died in 1988 at the age of 42, was still alive to see the progress. Drag queen story hours? Same-sex marriage? A greater acceptance of transgender individuals? How much of this social progress of the 21st century, particularly in matters related to the LGBTQIA+ community, was possible because Waters — who was nominated for the Hollywood star by LGBTQIA+ arts and entertainment organization Outfest — kept chip-chip-chipping away at the public sensibility for decades?
And so we must observe that Waters has done his city proud, particularly in capturing its eccentricities, a result of the collision of cultures, Black and white, rich and poor, Southern and Northern and so on. As the troublemaker in question observed in his autobiography, “Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste”: “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
We’re just awfully glad that Waters decided to stay and keep making movies, underground and mainstream, and to continue being a larger-than-life, pencil-mustachioed personality on the talk-show circuit. The Hollywood sidewalk star hits just the right note for his hometown.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.