He’s been asked to give commencement speeches, awarded two honorary doctorate degrees and hailed by the Writers Guild of America, the British Film Institute and the French minister of culture. And now, with John Waters’ induction into The Baltimore Sun’s Business and Civic Hall of Fame, the transformation appears complete: The ultimate outsider has turned insider.
What does the director/writer/performer, who’s made a living out of filth, make of all the respectability? As he wrote in his latest book: “The worst thing that could happen to a creative person has happened to me: I am accepted.”
It turns out it’s not such a bad position for this bad boy. For one, it’s not the first time The Sun has shone on the underground filmmaker from Lutherville; he was the newspaper’s Marylander of the Year in 2002. And here’s a secret: He’s really not all that bad (just bawdy).
“People don’t have any understanding of how hard he works, and what he gives up to do that,” says Jed Dietz, who founded the Maryland Film Festival in 1999 and retired as its director last year. “He’s the ultimate professional. He’s one of these people, if he says he’ll do something, it’s done.”
Mr. Waters, now 73, has made 16 films — including 1972’s “Pink Flamingos,” which was so filthy it caused people to flee the theater, and 1988’s “Hairspray,” which made him a household name and Hollywood hit. He’s also written nine books (the most recent of which was released May 21: “Mr. Know-It-All, The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder”), shown his photography in galleries around the world, appeared in multiple films, written and starred in one-man shows, and exhibited his creations at the Baltimore Museum of Art and elsewhere.
He’s an active member on the board of the Maryland Film Festival — personally presenting a favorite, often obscure film at each of the 21 annual events thus far — and a tireless booster of greater Baltimore, where he was born and raised and still spends most of his time (he has a house in the city, along with a couple of others around the country).
“It’s the only city left that’s cheap enough to have a bohemia for young people,” he says. “Come on down.”
It was here that he made his first film as a teen-ager, before he grew his signature pencil-thin mustache, and his latest — 2004’s “A Dirty Shame” — as an AARP eligible artist, helping build the city’s film industry and presenting pictures of the region and its more rebellious residents that are both profane and profoundly tender.
“Baltimore is definitely his muse,” says Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, who’s the director of the Baltimore Film Office and has worked as a location manager on four of Mr. Waters’ films — a job she called “challenging.” (You try convincing homeowners to put their properties in a potentially perverse John Waters flick.)
“We’re a city full of characters. He embraces that, he doesn’t poke fun. He wants everybody to know it’s OK to be you,” Ms. Dorsey says. “He makes everyone feel comfortable and good.”
When he was filming “A Dirty Shame,” strangers brought him plates of brownies. And many of his friends, including Ms. Dorsey, are carefully considering his request to buy a burial plot near his — if they haven’t already — so they can be together forever after.
“He’s family, you know, he’s family,” Ms. Dorsey says.
Mr. Waters grew up in a fairly conservative Catholic household, the eldest of four children. His dad owned a fire safety company that his brother took over and is now run by his niece, Anna Waters Gavin.
“I get so much street cred,” when people find out who her uncle is, she says.
As a kid, he was just “crazy Uncle John” to her, the guy with pop art fake food in his house and a knack with puppets (he used to put on professional shows when he was a boy and now performs for his nieces and nephews). He is also Ms. Gavin’s godfather and gave her an original photograph — “an investment,” she calls it today — of a TV image of Jesus dying on the cross as a gift for her Confirmation in the Catholic Church.
He once sent Patty Hearst and Suzanne Somers to babysit her so her parents could appear as extras in the 1994 film “Serial Mom”; generously promised to help her out as a teen if she were ever “hopped up on drugs or pregnant”; and inadvertently introduced her to gay porn when he hired her at 17 to help catalog his vast collection of varied books, which now number around 11,000.
“He is very meticulous,” she says. He carries note cards around with him to jot down ideas as they occur and treats art like a business in a way that’s unusual for creative people, she says. “A lot of his work ethic comes from my grandfather.”
When he was notified of The Sun’s business award, Mr. Waters sent an email to his family saying his dad would be proud. His father had lent him the money to make his earliest films, but after “Pink Flamingos” told him he didn’t have to pay it back afterward and should instead reinvest it in his next film.
“It was a lovely lesson,” Mr. Waters said in a phone interview from New York, where he was in the middle of a two-week book tour. Though his preferred media has changed through the years, from film to print and spoken word and back again, his mission hasn’t.
“I’m a storyteller,” he says — and busier than ever.
“I don’t want to retire,” he says. “I’d probably drop dead.”
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.