To say that John Waters is the most polarizing of American filmmakers, even among his own fan base, is stating the obvious. Not even David Lynch invites Waters’ level of divisiveness. By and large, the cult filmmaker’s canon is split between those who prefer his pre-Hairspray (1988) work and moviegoers who cannot digest the earlier, low budget underground period, and are forced to begin with that crossover film. With the later Waters’ crowd, the consensus is that the director took the shock ’em til you succeed route, and it worked. After that, Waters made legitimate movies. Waters himself seemed to add fuel to that theory with Cecil B. Demented (2000), which took aim at independent (along with conglomerate) filmmaking, although he did not refrain from self-parody or self-critique.
When composer Igor Stravinsky followed a series of seismic, revolutionary works with a reversion to a neo-Classical style, many of his advocates (avant-garde proselytizer Pierre Boulez among them) and disciples deemed him a traitor, literally picketing his concerts. Waters’ earliest fans were far more forgiving of their idol’s mainstream success. Perhaps that is because their prophet is cut from the same pop cloth as an Elvis Presley, rather than Stravinksy’s heritage of European high art. Although Waters would certainly wax amused (at least publicly) at the notion of his work being classified as art, he is no less provocative or innovative than his counterparts in the academic avant-garde. His flair for provocation is born of his time, place, and culture. Waters’ response to his heritage is honest, rendering him an authentic American success story.
By dubbing himself “the Pope Of Trash” in early write-ups in Baltimore newspapers and speaking engagements, Waters himself allegedly gives credence to the argument from the “early film” faction that once the director lost regulars David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Divine, and experienced authentic critical and financial successes, he merely took the money and ran. The earlier films represent the real John Waters.
For a filmmaker who has always invited polemics, the controversy may be appropriate, but ultimately it proves a distraction in approaching Waters as a viable filmmaker through a substantial body of work that reveals a developing love for narrative. Waters earliest films would not have indicated this.
Like Carla Bley in jazz and Philip Guston in painting, Waters’ earliest works were primarily abstract (surreal, non-linear). Each eventually realized their work was too thematic and moved beyond abstraction into postmodern tenets. Waters’ first effort was the little seen seventeen-minute 8MM short(1964). Shot on a $30.00 budget at the age of eighteen, the film was made from stolen film stock courtesy of Mona Montgomery, who starred and was Waters’ then-girlfriend. The narrative reportedly concerns a white ballerina (Montgomery) who discovers a black man (an uncredited actor) in a trashcan.
After a brief courtship (with Montgomery being carried around in the garbage receptacle), the two are married by a Klu Klux Klan priest (uncredited) with a drag queen serving as the bridesmaid in a rooftop wedding (filmed at the home of the director’s parents; Waters’ mother also provided the piano score). Mary Vivian Pearce performs a dance, and the “costuming” included an American flag and tinfoil. Hag In A Black Leather Jacket is one of the few Waters films not to feature Mink Stole. Waters has maintained that it’s best this remains in the closet. Reportedly, many of the shots are nonsensical, and were influenced by arthouse films that Waters had read about (but not seen).
Waters was sent to NYU, but dropped out. His next film was the experimental 40-minute Roman Candles (1966), which featured Waters’ regular crew, the Dreamlanders, including longtime friend Glenn Milstead (whom Waters gifted with the stage name Divine), Lochary, Stole, Pearce, Maelcum Soul, and Montgomery (who again supplied the stolen film stock). It was the first film produced under Waters’Dreamland Studios banner. Highly influenced by Andy Warhol‘s phenomenally successful underground film Chelsea Girls (1966), Roman Candles is completely non-linear. This collage of random, kinetic, punk imagery features Divine as a male party guest playing hide and seek, Soul chain-smoking in priestly drag, Pearce attacked by a man (Bob Skidmore) brandishing a fan, religion, sex, the Wizard of Oz, and nods to rock and roll drug culture. Although Roman Candles has never been released separately, it was part of Waters’ recent “The Change Of Life” exhibit, shown via three simultaneous projections with an equally absurd “soundtrack” featuring an excerpt from an interview with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. It delightfully wears its experimental nature on its sleeve.
Eat Your Makeup (1968) was Waters’ first 16mm effort. It edged (barely) towards something resembling a narrative. Divine dons drag to play Jackie Kennedy in a bizarre re-enactment of the John Kennedy assassination. Soul (in her last role—she died of an overdose a few weeks after filming wrapped) is the nanny who kidnaps virginal girls (perhaps a nod to Bela Lugosi‘s The Corpse Vanishes) and forces them to model themselves to death for boyfriend Lochary. The humiliation includes making the poor girls eat their makeup. Like Roman Candles, Eat Your Makeup was later screened in a traveling exhibition.
Barley more than a minute of footage survives from Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead (1968), which features Pat Moran as Dorothy. It is available on YouTube for the curious, but tells us little about the film (which also featured Soul as the Wicked Witch).
Mondo Trasho (1969) was Waters’ first feature film (shot on a $2,000 budget, financed by Waters’ father). It also is the earliest of his films that is relatively available (it was briefly on home video). This primarily silent, dissonant fairy tale begins with a triple decapitation of chickens, followed by a bleached-blonde Pearce as a dolled-up Jean Harlow type, a Cinderella of the Baltimore gutter. She feeds a few insects in the park and gets a “shrimp job” (John Leisenring sucks her toes) before being run over by Divine as a 370 lbs. Marilyn Monroe driving a Cadillac. Divine loads our comatose Hollywood Babylon heroine into the car. Sho’ nuff’, Divine is visited by the Virgin Mary and Tinkerbell (musically cued in by a snippet of Little Richard) who bestow divinity on our favorite transvestite and the gift of a wheelchair for Cinderella. Lo and behold, our protagonists are thrown into a loony bin where Mink Stole dances topless. The Blessed Mother reappears (accompanied by Tinkerbell) inspiring Divine, Lochary, Stole, and the asylum lunatics to all start speaking in tongues. Divine (that’s Lady Divine now) takes Cinderella to Dr. Coathanger (Lochary again, cued in by Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring). Doc amputates, replacing our virgin’s gams with chicken feet. In what may be the most jaw-dropping finale in the history of cinema, Lady Divine and Cinderella are chased by a herd of pigs (a Bunuel-worthy reversal of Christ’s casting the demons into swine) and Divine is martyred, becoming our new savior. She (sort of) ascends into heaven as Our Lady and Tinkerbell declare her divinity. The postlude is a tribute to Freaks, with Pearce subbing for Olga Baklanova.
Waters has expressed dissatisfaction with Mondo Trasho, saying it would have worked better as a short. He is probably correct, but this mix of mythology, fairy tales, religion, Kenneth Angerism, and Tod Browning is far more original (and unforgettable) than Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway attempt at a similar fusion with “Into The Woods.” Unfortunately, Waters could not secure rights to the film’s smorgasbord of music (Elvis Presely, Judy Garland, Pat Boone, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Frank Sintara, Jo Stafford, Bill Haley & The Comets, Ike Turner, Wilson Pickett, Chet Atkins, Jim Nabors, and Mae West), leaving it officially unavailable for the time being.
The Diane Linkletter Story (1969) was shot quickly, shortly after the suicide of its subject, but never released. Art Linkletter and his wife unquestionably exploited their daughter’s death (she reportedly jumped out of a window under the influence of LSD, although the autopsy revealed she had no drugs in her system), going on a highly publicized campaign lecturing on the evils of drugs and the hippie generation—which amounted to a posthumous berating of their dead offspring. Naturally, Waters considered this an open invitation to respond. Divine plays Diane arguing with Lochary and Pearce (as her hypocritical, sanctimonious parents) before the big leap to becoming street pizza. Bootleg copies have appeared on video and the Internet. It is as fabulously trashy as it sounds (and essential Waters).
It was with Pink Flamingos that Waters found a pulse for exceptionally strong narrative, which made him an icon for the Midnight Movie circuit. He followed that up with the last of his underground films—Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)—to create a trilogy like no other.
Pink Flamingos had a budget of $10,000 and grossed nearly $200,000 in its initial run. This enabled budgets of $25,000 for Female Trouble and $65,000 for Desperate Living. Yet, these movies did something far more than just make money—they paved the eventual path for a (somewhat) legitimized John Waters.
Multiple Maniacs (1970), Female Troubles (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) are all covered individually on on this site and 366 weird movies. Pink Flamingos (1972) is covered on the 366 site.
Polyester (1981) had a whopping budget of $300, 000, was the first Waters film to garner an MPAA rating of “R” (his previous work had been unrated or slapped with an “X”), and moved Waters’ basic locations from garages, shanty towns and trailer parks to the suburbs. Working for the first time in 35 MM (and with good sound), Waters’ utilizes his resources to superb effect, acerbically penetrating the American dream’s facade. He did not get there by himself. Like Picasso or Brian DePalma, Waters steals well. In Polyester, he further enriches the formidable melodrama tradition of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s influence was first discernible in Desperate Living, although Waters’ films are more forthright (taking nothing at all away from Sirk). Here, with the small town environment at his disposal, Waters models his film’s composition on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). He filters that influence, along with bits stolen from William Castle, through his own postmodern sensibilities.
In Polyester Waters invades the suburbs with unwanted minorities, social deviants, anarchists, freaks, and immigrants who threaten WASP property values (one wonders what kind of rise Waters could get out of Donald Trump’s hairpiece). That eclecticism echoes in the casting. This would also be the last film for Dreamland regulars Edith Massey and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with Divine and Mink Stole, they are cast opposite 50s beefcake Tab Hunter (Waters’ nod to Sirk’s use of Rock Hudson). Divine’s performances were progressively improving, and Hunter is a professional “B”-actor; the pair are beautifully juxtaposed against personality driven “Z” amateurs. Hunter exudes middle-aged poster boy charisma and delivers his lines with self-conscious precision (in sharp contrast, Waters always struggled with Massey’s inability to remember her dialogue).
Naturally, Waters had to have fun with such a lavish train set, creating a Castle-like gimmick with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff-cards. Polyester was the first Waters film I saw in a theater (at a midnight showing), and although it certainly holds up in home video formats, it is naturally diminished when it loses the cinema-as-participatory-theater angle. In the original experience, 10 numbers were flashed across the screen throughout the film. After scratching the accompanying card number, the entire theater was awash in the smell of roses, farts, Airplane glue, pizza, gasoline, a skunk, a gas oven, leather upholstery, dirty shoes, and aerosol air freshener.
The film itself is the lushly-plotted saga of Francine Fishpaw (Divine), whose relationship to her creator bears an uncanny kinship to Charles Schultz’s sadism towards the forever put-upon Charlie Brown. Of course, in a Hollywood-minded film, after going through a cycle of purgatory, Francine would eventually become the empowered woman. Fortunately, no such luck here, and Francine’s perennially downtrodden state makes for what may be Divine’s first genuine character performance.
Poor Francine’s luck is so bad that she is even made to look like a loser by Edith Massey. While Francine is trying to live the life of a good Catholic neighbor (“I’m a good Christian woman”), her sleaze of a hubby Elmer (David Samson, in an Ernest Angley toupee) runs a porn theater. The local Bible-thumpers make daily life a living hell for our poor heroine, picketing her and mocking her gluttony, alcoholism and family. Worse, Elmer is having a sordid affair with his secretary-cum-motel-companion Sandra (Mink Stole, thrusting on all cylinders). Unknown to Francine, her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing addict with a foot fetish who transforms into the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper. Adding to Fishpaw’s woes is her slut of a daughter Lu-Lu (the delightfully over-the-top Mary Garlington) who hates school, hates mom, and hates the baby inside of her (Lu-Lu, meet coat hanger). She only loves her white trash beau, who is about to wind up dead.
As the suddenly rich beneficiary of an inheritance, Edith Massey wrecks Waters’ train set, stealing every scene she is in. Mary Vivian Pearce (again playing a nun), Susan Lowe (looking very different than she did in Desperate Living), and Mueller all appear in cameos. Jean Hill (also in Living) shows up in a vignette as a bus-driving Baptist out to kick sinner ass.
As Todd Tomorrow, a name straight out of a comic book, Tab Hunter arrives as Divine’s penis envy personified. He is merely a temporary pass out of purgatory, and rest assured something incestuous is literally afoot. Even with its (comparatively) large budget, Polyester is still securely within what we believe to be “Waters’ universe,” exhibiting his raw gift for nihilism (albeit stylishly hip nihilism).
Seven years passed before Waters made another film. Even more shocking than the long absence was his return with a PG rated family film: Hairspray (1988). Hairspray verified Waters’ gift for nostalgia. The fact that it was eventually made into a Broadway musical, and then remade in 2007 as a movie musical starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, and Michelle Pfeiffer, cements Waters as an authentic all-American success story. Of course, there were a few fans who deemed him a traitor, but even their protests were subdued. Waters sentimental pining for the past had always been present and, in hindsight, his move to the mainstream now seeed inevitable, as opposed to unfathomable. After twenty-five years, Waters had fully emerged from garage filmmaking. What was not to celebrate?
Waters hones in on the early sixties, before the Beatles, Stones, Doors, JFK, MLK, RFK, Vietnam, revolution, and Charles Manson. This is the 60s of Chubby Checker (AKA, the recycled 50s); but, with segregation, revolution is bubbling. The beatniks (Rick Ocasek and Pia Zadora) are right around the corner, but the counterculture is not quite here yet, and Waters’ approach is congenial, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Ricki Lake stars as Tracy Turnblad. She is Waters’ answer to Rocky Balboa, competing against evil queen Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) on the Corny Collins Show (with Shawn Thompson subbing for Dick Clark). Amber even comes equipped with evil parents (Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry in a beehive), but they are no match for Tracy’s parents: Edna (Divine) and Wilbur (Jerry Stiller).
Divine is simply marvelous, in what would tragically be her last role (she died of respiratory failure from sleep apnea shortly after Hairspray was released). Her role fits her like a second skin. As Waters muses, “there are still people today who see the film, unaware that Edna is being played by a man.” Waters keeps in the spirit of James Whale‘s advice of not spoiling it for those not in on the joke.
The drag tradition stuck, and Harvey Fierstein played Edna on Broadway. In the 2007 remake (directed by Adam Shankman), Travolta (in a fat drag suit) brings his Saturday Night Fever (1977) credentials to the role. Divine proved so commanding and influential in her part that she even became the model for Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Perhaps even more appealing than legitimized Waters is legitimized Divine. Who would have ever thunk it?
Fitzpatrick is almost as much fun, clearly relishing naive bitchery. Her enthusiasm is contagious and, despite her position as antagonist, we actually find ourselves rooting for her.
In Hairspray, Waters’ cloaks his subversion in a glossy, cartoon sheen. The freaks emerge triumphant and make the status quo seem hopelessly archaic. The movie’s success was gradual. It did moderately well at the box office upon its theatrical release, but became a bona fide cult hit in the home video market. Some critics prefer the 2007 musical, which should be seen more as a celebratory evolution than an official remake.
After a two-year hiatus, John Waters returned to the big screen with Cry-Baby (1990), a nostalgic follow-up to Hairspray (1988). Although commercially a flop, Cry-Baby was mostly a critical success and did better overseas. Eventually, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby spawned a Broadway musical. Its mix of camp, sweet-toothed cynicism, and 50s nostalgia are ripe for choreographic treatment, and “Cry-Baby, The Musical” has seen two revivals. It seems inevitable that a big screen adaptation is not far off.
1994’s Serial Mom was a 13-million dollar budgeted cousin to 1974’s $25,000 Female Trouble (probably Waters’ best film). Like Cry-Baby, and every post-Hairspray Waters’ film, Serial Mom lost money, barely making back half of its cost. Like David Lynch, Waters hones in on the white picket fence, not-so-discreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. His recipe calls for equal parts exploitation, celebrity crime spree, and satire on the hypocrisy of American etiquette, all on a Martha Stewart endcap display, dripping with battery acid.
In Serial Mom, Waters shifts the focus of horror away from doublewide trailers and into suburbia. Naturally, that change of palette has been criticized for taking away Waters’ edge, but this is hardly the case. Waters presents Serial Mom in a visually acceptable package, but even mainstream audiences knew it to be a facade, which is why it lost money. It is easy for middle class WASPS to jeer at and mantle an attitude of superiority towards low income Baltimore Catholic trailer trash. Hell, that approach was the appeal that filled aisle seats in all those midnight showings and made Waters a cult icon. However, nothing is more unnerving than a mirror, which Waters brandishes to his audience, and nothing is resisted like the reflection of hypocrisy.
Star Kathleen Turner is a virtuoso as Betty in this quintessential parody of suburban family values. She should have received an Oscar for her performance as a matriarchal Norman Bates (could Norman have slaughtered Philistines so creatively with a leg of lamb, to the song ‘Tomorrow’?) Alas, she was not even nominated in a year of woefully lame Academy choices. This ranks as one of her best performances, and the best acting in any Waters film.
A toe-licking dog (choregraphed to a VHS scene from Annie), a son masturbating to Chesty Morgan, a noisy infant doused in snot, some swooning to Barry Manilow, and Waters’ fetish for courtrooms can only be topped by killing Patty Hearst for her Labor Day blasphemy. American freedom is realityTV, baby.
Four years passed before studios gambled on Waters again. With a decreased budget of 6 million (it took in 2 million), Pecker (1998) is Waters’ portrait of the artist as a young man. Pecker (Edward Furlong) is a photographer with a penchant for lesbians, cockroaches, fornicating rodents, and middle class Baltimore as his subjects. He comes by this perspective honestly. His fashion-wannabe mom (Mary Kay Place) operates a thrift store; girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) is a laundromat stain goddess; and Big Sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) MCs at a gay strip club. There’s also sweet-toothed little sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), shoplifting BFF Matt (Brendan Sexton) and a granny (Jean Schertler) with a (sort of) talking Virgin Mary statue.
As to be expected in Waters, Pecker’s worldview (or lens view) garners protests from the status quo, until a gallery success changes everything. Pecker leaves his sandwich shop job, becomes a pretentious New York City artist, and transforms from a “pecker” (so named because he pecks like a bird) into a bona fide prick. Furlong has charm, but since Waters is a woman’s director, Ricci steals Pecker’s thunder, Plimpton steals the film, and Patty Hearst and Mink Stole make cameos. Meanwhile, Waters exploits Waters.
With Cecil B. Demented (2000), Waters filters his Patty Hearst fetish through a satirical homage to the business of cinema. Waters’ budget increased to ten million here, but the film took in less than a million, which is only apt for such a endearingly jumbled endeavor. Waters’ writing skills are unbottled here as he crafts valentines to everyone from William Castle and Russ Meyer to Charles Laughton, Spike Lee, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, while simultaneously taking aim at every hypocrisy in sight. Much like Jim Morrison taking his hippie followers to task, Waters knocks the indie filmmaking mentality off its self-assigned pedestal, but not without genuine love.
Stephen Dorff plays the title character (the name being an obvious play on that most sanctimonious of classic filmmakers, Cecil B. DeMille), but again the male lead is upstaged by the heroine (or anti-heroine) Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). Cecil is a guerrilla filmmaker who exacts revenge on commercial Hollywood when he kidnaps superstar diva “Honey” and forces her to star in his indie film. Shades of Martin Scorsese’s King Of Comedy abound. Honey sees the light and, like Patty Hearst, renounces her affluent life, joining the cinema terrorists in their revolution to destroy multiplexes, sequels, and Hollywood itself. Hearst herself appears as a mother to one of the terrorists. Since Waters is more concerned with narrative here than film aesthetics, Cecil B. Demented is intentionally amateurish.
However, Waters’ multifarious obsessions parallel the film’s kinetic pace, and it gets away from him. He has gone full circle here, from his genesis as an outlaw to the present day, both loving and loathing the strange trip. Admirably and authentically anti-PC, Waters flips the bird at status-quo complacency, which includes bourgeois tastes (teargassing housewives at a showing of Patch Adams).
Ricki Lake returns as Honey’s much-abused assistant, but the surprise here is Alicia Witt as ex-porn star Charity, who provides the film’s delightfully dirtiest vignette, describing a Christmas past gang bang. Melanie Griffith revels in self-parody, and her performance commands attention in a muddled mess that is still more honest and worthwhile than most mainstream successes.
While the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame (2004) was seen by some as a return to form, it was Waters’ biggest box office loss to date (costing 15 million and making only a million). Apparently, this was the final straw for studio investors. Waters has not made a film in the eleven years since.
Tracey Ullman stars as Baltimore suburbanite Sylvia Stickles. She’s married to dull hubby Vaughn (Chris Isaak) and hasn’t had an orgasm in years, until a concussion from a car accident transforms her into an unhinged ho, receiving muff diving lessons from a phallic Jesus under the moniker of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville). In one of the film’s off-the meter-vignettes, the duo’s antics send nursing home witnesses into straight-line mode.
A Dirty Shame channels Doris Wishman and Chesty Morgan in an all-out, full-frontal assault on the puritan religious right (who would of course arrogantly interpret that as an assault on God). This time, the theme is sexual revolution, and the Neuters, heading the Decency Squads, are unquestionable villains.
Selma Blair as Ursula Udders joins Ullman in Waters’ exhausting full-throttled “there’s no place like home” trip. Mink Stole and Patty Hearst again return for cameos in what may be Waters’ coda. That would be regrettable, but A Dirty Shame would serve as a damned fine coda, succeeding where Cecil B. Demented faltered.
Although John Waters has not made a film in eleven years, he did produce Kiddie Flamingos in 2015. It is a video shot for his show at the Marianne Bosky Art Gallery. It is exactly what it sounds like: children doing a table reading of Waters’ Pink Flamingos (minus the dirtiest parts). An excerpt can be seen in this New York Times article http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/john-waters-kids-pink-flamingos/?_r=1.
Make of it what you will.