Waters, John (1946—)

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Waters, John (1946—)

Director John Waters earned the title "King of Bad Taste" in 1972 for Pink Flamingos, a raunchy film that makes a laughing matter of most every type of perversion. The film ushered in a new era for popular culture, in which the shocking and bizarre would attract growing audiences and profits, penetrating every medium from mainstream newspapers to day-time television talk shows. Waters refined his obsession with "good bad taste"—a term he coined—over several decades, creating a new movie genre of the bizarre, according to director David Lynch.

Waters identifies himself as a writer foremost, but he is an example of an entrepreneur who uses many channels effectively. His witty essays have been collected in two volumes, Shock Value (1981) and Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1983); collections of his screenplays and photographs also have been published. He has made a handful of cameo appearances in films and television programs, including the voice for a cartoon character in an Emmy-nominated episode of The Simpsons. In the 1990s, he mounted an traveling exhibit of movie stills. A charming talk-show guest, Waters is in demand as a speaker at college campuses, film schools, and festivals.

The director's opus may be grouped into two periods. Following Pink Flamingos, his movies Female Trouble (1975), Desperate Living (1977), and Polyester (1981) have been described as "vulgar and cheerful nihilism," "blasphemous," "sophomoric," and "whimsical." Foul language and scatological visual and verbal references made these works unappealing to middle America. Critics and audiences either hated his films or loved them, hailing him as an iconoclastic artist. His themes often presage cultural trends by decades. For example, in Female Trouble, the crazed heroine believes death in the electric chair for a life of crime is the equivalent of an Academy Award. Water's loopy characterization antedated by nearly 20 years Oliver Stone's controversial treatment of warped lovers who go on a killing rampage to achieve media notoriety in Natural Born Killers (1994).

In the 1990s, Waters graduated from cult and midnight-movie houses to suburban multiplexes with such films as Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998). Waters' second period continues his biting satire of American culture but without reference to such perversions as incest, coprophagy, castration, necrophilia, and the gross visual images of the earlier films. A unifying theme of both periods is his focus on characters who are "insane but believe they are sane," Waters told National Public Radio interviewer Terry Gross in 1998. His films turn normative American values upside-down and champion outsiders.

Raised in an upper middle class family in Baltimore, Waters, like many creative people, knew what he wanted to do early in life. He got his first subscription to Variety at age 12 and haunted the seedier movie theaters favoring horror films and B movies, especially admiring Russ Meyers. After he was dismissed from New York University's film school for smoking marijuana, he persuaded his father that financing a series of low-budget films would be cheaper than paying for his education. These early efforts include Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964); The Diane Linkletter Story (1966), a 10-minute exercise in bad taste about the LSD suicide of the daughter of a famous Hollywood entertainer; Roman Candles (1966), during which three short features are screened simultaneously on side-by-side screens; Eat Your Make Up! (1968), satirizing the modelling industry; Mondo Trasho (1969), a spoof of then-popular documentaries of the bizarre and pornographic around the world; and Multiple Maniacs (1971), which ends with the heroine being raped by a giant lobster. Most did not make it out of the church halls he rented for home-town showings.

Pink Flamingos brought Waters to the attention of the avant-garde artistic community. Andy Warhol—whose small budget films such as Sleep convinced Waters that he, too, could make movies on a shoestring—reportedly advised Federico Fellini to see Pink Flamingos. Waters' work has been compared to that of the Italian master. One critic suggested that Waters had created a "Theater of Nausea," comparable to Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty" and Charles Ludlam's "Theater of the Ridiculous." New York magazine hailed Pink Flamingos as an American version of the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali classic, Andalusian Dogs. Pink Flamingos was a commercial as well as an artistic success. Made for $12,000, it earned at least $2 million during the first few years after its release. His next movies were made with incrementally larger budgets and found growing audiences.

In the early films, Waters often took people on the margins of society and transformed them into "glamorous movie stars." He told the Baltimore Sun in 1978, "To me all those outrageous-looking people are beautiful. Because to me beauty is looks that you can never forget." It has been his life's work to ridicule the conventions of a society that ostracizes people who do not fit within its narrow standards of perfection and to exploit the potential of film to bring them the fame and success which, in his eyes, they deserve.

The greatest of his on-screen creations was the metamorphosis of his friend Glenn Milstead into Divine, a 300-pound transvestite who vamped it up in the skin-tight gowns of Hollywood movie queens, with exaggerated make-up—including eyebrows that soared up his half-shaved head—and heavily bleached and teased blond hair. A charismatic performer, Divine took viewers by storm as the matriarch of a family of perverted criminals vying for the title of "Filthiest Family Alive" in Pink Flamingos. Mink Stole, a screen persona created for Waters' friend Nancy Stoll, played Divine's rival for the title, Connie Marble. Connie and her husband Raymond (the late David Lochary) kidnapped and impregnated young women, chaining them in the basement of their suburban house of horrors, then sold the babies to lesbian couples. In a scene that may never be topped for grossness, Divine eats dog feces from the pavement to secure the title.

Hairspray, with Divine in a supporting role, marked Waters' transition into shopping mall theaters. The only shocking thing left for him to do, Waters had concluded, was to make a mainstream film. Hairspray is a light-hearted musical treatment of a serious issue—integration. The story is based on Baltimore's Buddy Deane Show, a teen dance showcase that was driven off the air in 1964 by the NAACP for segregating African-American dancers to one program a month. In Hairspray, teenagers defeat their parents' resistance to integration, and everybody dances together in the film's happy ending. The story reflects the director's egalitarian sentiments. He praises Baltimore as the appropriate setting for his films because it is an "unholy mix" of old money and new immigrants, black and white poor, and a dirty industrial Eastern seaport with the Southern charm of the first city south of the Mason-Dixon line. When it comes to night life, Waters told Richard Gorelick, "I want to go somewhere where everyone is mixed—that's my ideal: rich, poor, black, white, gay, and straight, all together."

With the death of the irreplaceable Divine soon after the release of Hairspray, Waters' transition to the mainstream was virtually assured. Cry-Baby, an edgy Bye-Bye Birdie (1963), tells the story of a middle-class girl who longs to "go bad" and her romance with the leader of the "drapes," a rock-n-rolling, motorcycle riding, black-leather jacketed gang of juvenile delinquents. The freedom-loving "drapes" prevail against the repressed and repressive clean-cut clique of upper-middle-class suburban kids. "My movies are very moral," Waters told Pat Aufderheide. "The underdogs always win. The bitter people are punished, and people who are happy with themselves win. They're all about wars between two groups of people, usually involving fashion, which signifies morals. It's part of a lifelong campaign against people telling you what to do with your own business."

Johnny Depp as the title character with a tattooed tear-drop under one eye guaranteed the film's box office success. Waters turned to star power again in his next film, featuring Kathleen Turner as Serial Mom, a perfect suburban mother who just happens to be a serial killer. A prolific consumer of newspapers and magazines—he subscribes to over 80—Waters frequently pulls his inspiration from the headlines. Pecker pits the innocence of a young blue-collar Baltimore photographer who finds beauty everywhere against the exploitative glamour of the Manhattan art world. It features rising talents Edward Furlong, Lili Taylor, and Christina Ricci.

Waters' success owes much to his abilities as a promoter. Working from the trunk of his car in the early days, he persuaded East Coast theater owners to do midnight showings of Pink Flamingos, thus making money during hours when they normally would be closed. Through this stroke of marketing genius, he became an architect of the midnight cult movie showing.

Adapting his writing to yet another medium, Waters created a photography exhibit, "Director's Cut," that toured galleries in the 1990s, using frames isolated from others' films to author original storyboards. This technique illustrates the cultural phenomenon that Europeans call "bricolage," the art of recycling culture to create new works of art. Aufderheide sees the technique in Waters' films, commenting: "John Waters is the bard of a culture that creates itself out of commercial trash; he's a visionary of sorts, someone who discovers the bizarre in the everyday and the everyday in the bizarre."

It is the ultimate accolade to Waters' cultural influence that he helped make the unspeakable acceptable, by making people laugh about the strange and sometimes repulsive truths of everyday existence. People who were marginalized as "freaks" during the early 1970s now routinely appear as guests on television talk shows. Jokes about flatulence and other bodily functions were taken up in films by such well-known humorists as Carl Reiner and the Monty Python troupe. In an article entitled "Mr. Bad Taste Goes Respectable," U.S. News & World Report noted that it was increasingly difficult for Waters to retain his title when comedian Jim Carrey told "butt jokes" during a televised presentation of the Academy Awards.

Waters, who still lives in Baltimore and sets all of his movies there, is a local hero because his success brought the city's picturesque locales to the attention of other film crews and made the city a site for East Coast film making. After such Hollywood luminaries as Alan Alda and Al Pacino arrived in town to make movies, the mayor established the city's Film Commission in 1980 to serve as a liaison for movie makers seeking Baltimore locations. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the group of self-styled "juvenile delinquents" and eccentrics that Waters gathered around himself evolved into Dreamland Studio, an ensemble production company. Waters was still working with many of the same people in front of the camera and behind the scenes by the end of the 1990s. Reconciled with his family after years of rebellion, a proud home owner who holds backyard barbecues for the Dreamland survivors, Waters told Aufderheide, "It's hilarious that in some ways I've become part of the establishment."

To his credit, Waters has never tried to top the vulgarity of Pink Flamingos, instead honing his talent to mock social intolerance, transvalue society's standards, and take every bizarre reality to its extreme. Long before radio "Shock Jock" Howard Stern came along, John Waters was simultaneously offending people and making them laugh.

—E. M. I. Sefcovic

Further Reading:

Aufderheide, Pat. "The Domestication of John Waters." American Film. Vol. 15, No. 7, April, 1990, 32-37.

Geier, Thom. "Mr. Bad Taste Goes Respectable." U. S. News & World Report. April 28, 1997, 16.

Gorelick, Richard. "John Waters' 'Pecker' Is His Gayest Film Ever, Mary." Gay Life (Baltimore). September 4, 1998, B6-B7.

Hirschey, Geri. "Waters Breaks." Vanity Fair. March, 1990, 204-208, 245.

Hunter, Stephen. "A Good Place to Raise a Movie." Washington Post. September 27, 1998, G1, G6.

Mandelbaum, Paul. "Kink Meister." New York Times Magazine. April 7, 1991, 34-36, 52.

Sefcovic, Enid. "Smutty Waters Just Keeps Rolling Along." Extra. April 20, 1975, 6, 10.