Nationality: American. Born: Baltimore, Maryland, April 29, 1946. Education: Attended University of Baltimore, 1965, and New York University, 1966; claims to have been thrown out of film school. Career: Made first short film with 8mm camera, 1964; directed first feature, Mondo Trasho (financed for $2,000 by father), and began collaboration with Divine, 1969; arrested on eve of premiere of Mondo Trasho and charged with "conspiracy to commit indecent
exposure"; directed first-ever scratch-and-sniff movie, Polyester , 1981; teacher at Baltimore Prison, 1980s.
Films as Director, Producer, and Screenwriter:
Hag in a Leather Jacket (short)
Roman Candles (3 shorts)
Eat Your Makeup (short)
Mondo Trasho (+ ed, cin)
Pink Flamingoes (+ ed, cin)
Female Trouble (+ cin)
Hairspray (co-pr + role as Dr. Frederickson)
Serial Mom (+ cameo role as Ted Bundy)
Pecker (+ voice as Pervert on Phone)
Cecil B. Demented
Something Wild (Demme) (as Used Car Guy)
Homer and Eddie (Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky) (as Robber νm1)
Home Movie on John Waters (Populin — short) (as Himself); Divine Trash (Yaeger —doc) (as Himself)
In Bad Taste (Yaeger —doc) (as Himself); Forever Hollywood (Glassman/McCarthy —doc) (as Himself); Sweet and Lowdown (Allen) (as Mr. Haynes)
By WATERS: books—
Shock Value , New York, 1981.
Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters , New York, 1986.
Trash Trio: The Screenplays Pink Flamingoes, Desperate Living, Flamingoes Forever , New York, 1988.
Director's Cut , New York, 1997.
By WATERS: articles—
Interview, in Film Comment (New York), June 1981.
"John Waters' Guilty Pleasures," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1983.
Interview with Karen Jaehne, in Stills (London), November/December 1983.
"Blackboard Jungle," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1985.
"How Not to Make a Movie," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1986.
"Hard Travelling," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1986.
Interview, in Interview (New York), December 1986.
Interview, in A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers , by Scott MacDonald, Berkeley, 1988.
Interview, with Jonathan Ross, in Time Out (London), 22 June 1988.
" The National Enquirer ," in Time Out (London), 21 September 1988.
"John Waters: From Sleaze to Tease," an interview with K. Bail, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), November 1988.
"Walgelijk!," an interview with K. Vandemaele, in Skoop (Amsterdam), July/August 1990.
Interview with Robert Seidenberg, in Empire (London), August 1990.
"Camping out in Holywood," an interview with David Hockney, in Interview (New York), April 1994.
"High Waters Marks," an interview with Kate Meyers, in Entertainment Weekly (New York), 29 April 1994.
On WATERS: books—
Hoberman, Jim, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, editors, Midnight Movies , New York, 1983.
Ives, John G., John Waters , New York, 1992.
McCarty, John, The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking , New York, 1995.
Stevenson, Jack, Desperate Visions: The Films of John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers , New York, 1996.
On WATERS: articles—
Spratt, M., "John Waters: Good Bad Taste," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March 1983.
Katsahnias, I., "John Waters," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1990.
Thompson, B., "The Filthiest Man in the World," in New Statesman and Society (London), 13 July 1990.
Mandelbaum, Paul, "Kink Meister: Filmmaker John Waters Is Living Proof That Nothing Exceeds like Excess," in New York Times Magazine , 7 April 1991.
Clark, John, "Cool Waters," in Premiere (New York), April 1994.
* * *
One of the major surprises of Hairspray is that, in addition to being quite charmingly benign, it exhibits a technical competence, even flair, totally unsuggested by John Waters's earlier works. Between his seventeen-minute home movie Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and his semi-overground scratch-and-sniff feature Polyester , the Baltimore-based Waters's films improve only insofar as their increasing—though still minuscule—budgets allow for such luxuries as colour, synchronised sound, and camera set-ups. His best-known early works, Pink Flamingoes , Female Trouble , and Desperate Living , manage to combine the conceptually outrageous with all the technical skills of the average home movie or hardcore porno quickie. Financing his first films through shoplifting and surrounding his habitual star—300-pound transvestite Divine—with various comically depraved and/or hideous friends who are at once funnier, grosser, and more extreme than Warhol's factory folk, Waters created in Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs a self-contained world of the defiantly sick, where beauty and ugliness, good and bad, and restraint and excess are juggled to a surprisingly moral, endearing effect. His scatological obsessions are less Swiftian than pre-adolescent, and he always seems to view his movies as ratty fairy tales in the Saki or Disney manner, often poking fun at the very idea of something being offensive even while going as far as is possible on screen.
Pink Flamingoes is Waters's disposable masterpiece, in which Divine and entourage—including the horrifying Edy Massey—battle with a group of more uptight degenerates—including the talented Mink Stole, who has stuck with Waters throughout his career—for the title of "World's Filthiest Person." Waters simply uses the premise as an excuse for getting as much depravity on screen as possible, winding up with an unforgettable punchline as Divine outgrosses everyone by cheerfully eating dog shit. The rest of the picture matches the tone of this classic moment, with a DIY artificial insemination, a musical rectum, a half-naked egg-sucking grandmother, a touch of hardcore gay sex, a hokey cannibal orgy that satirises Night of the Living Dead , plentiful ranting ("filth is my politics, filth is my life," claims Divine), bad-taste Manson jokes, and a sexual act that involves killing chickens to add to the gross-out count. Typical of the film's trashiness and compounding of illegality with the distasteful is the idea of Divine shoplifting a hunk of frozen meat by slipping it into her panties and then serving it to her family for dinner, claiming that it has been "warmed in her own oven." Nevertheless, much of the funniest stuff in the movie is deadpanned, as when Divine's loyal son staunchly reacts to an insult to his mother with "Mama, nobody sends you a turd and expects to live."
Waters has claimed that "I pride myself in the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value," but underneath it all he is an All-American Boy seeing how far he can go before his parents send him up to his room, and his essays—collected in Shock Value and Crackpot —reveal that he is a witty moralist. At worst, his films are merely tedious, but at best they are life-affirming in the way that Tom Lehrer's gleefully sick songs can be. Pink Flamingoes , no matter how difficult it might be to sit through, is a one-of-a-kind movie, disarming and necessary in the way that Wavelength and The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes are, but it proved an almost impossible act to follow. Female Trouble and Desperate Living are more of the same—with Divine leading a glamorous life of crime in the former and dying beautifully in the electric chair, and Mink Stole running away to join a community of murderous lesbian outcasts in the latter—only not as effectively offensive. Both films have their moments, both of humour (Divine strangling a hare krishna) and sickness (Susan Lowe reversing her sex change by snipping off her new penis with a pair of scissors), but they do not have the demented charm of Pink Flamingoes. Polyester , a nervous step towards the mainstream with less overt violence and one name actor (Tab Hunter), is a half-hearted picture, turning its back on sex and violence because Waters justifiably felt that other movies ( Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS , Thundercrack! , Cafe Flesh , Appointment with Agony ) had gone further than he would care to, but finding little in its leftover soap-opera plot worth guying, although it has a priceless joke about a dive-in cinema advertising "three great Marguerite Duras hits" and offering champagne at its snack bar. With Polyester , it was also becoming notable that Waters's mainly amateur casts had never been quite up to the demands of his acid, cleverly turned dialogue, and that Divine—as disastrously revealed in the Paul Bartel-directed but seemingly Waters-inspired "trash western" spoof Lust in the Dust (which also starred Tab Hunter) —was incapable of turning a drag act into an acting performance worth building a film around.
After Polyester , Waters spent seven years of relative inactivity away from the camera—teaching film courses in prisons and writing amusing essays for Film Comment and National Lampoon. Then, in 1988, Waters returned with Hairspray , a spoof of teen-oriented movies which retained Divine, albeit in a digestible secondary role, and a fascination with 1960s pop ephemera from Waters's early movies (pirated pop had always been used on Waters's soundtracks, and the plot of Female Trouble revolves around cha-cha heels), but which otherwise seems more like the sort of well-observed period picture one might have expected from Baltimore's other resident local auteur, Barry Levinson. Like Diner and Tin Men , Hairspray is about a specific phenomenon of the place and period, in this case a television dance show a la Dick Clark's "immortal" American Bandstand. Waters does not take his subject seriously, and enjoys the opportunity to guy more conventional nostalgia movies, but also shows that he was developing a grasp of the needs of real movie-making, including a flair for staging musical numbers that was carried over into Cry-Baby , a parody of 1950s juvenile delinquent movies that is very much in the vein of—and, indeed, is slightly overshadowed by— Hairspray. The untimely death of Divine forced Waters to cast a bonafide actress, Susan Tyrrell, in what would have been Divine's role in Cry-Baby , with effective results. The period musicals Hairspray and Cry-Baby are further distinguished by Waters's clever and fruitful use of kitsch casting—Pia Zadora, Deborah Harry, Troy Donahue, Patty Hearst, Traci Lords, Iggy Pop, Sonny Bono—to replace the bizarro hangerson who used to exclusively populate his movies. Hairspray and Cry-Baby may be less repulsive than Pink Flamingoes , but much of the curiously innocent heart of the earlier film is carried over, along with the major contribution of art director Vincent Periano, as is Waters's love of overheated B-movie melodrama.
Waters's next film, Serial Mom , harkened a semi-return, by the self-billed "Prince of Puke" and self-styled chronicler of his beloved city of Baltimore's high and low life, to the warped world view of his earlier Female Trouble and Polyester , albeit with a much bigger budget, better production values, and an even more mainstream cast. An occasionally bloody satire on suburban rot, mass murder, and the media's glorification of crime and criminals—familiar Waters obsessions—it starred Kathleen Turner as the title character, an average housewife with a not-so-average predilection for knocking off any and all who pose a threat to her neat and tidy world of domestic bliss. The film never quite jelled, never quite crossed over into Waters's trademark territory of outright lunacy, however. Its twistedness and perversity seemed dulled, its outrageousness muted, as if Waters was pulling his punches in a conscious bid for mainstream critic and audience acceptance. In short, it was too tasteful ; either that or the movies had finally caught up with Waters's unique vision, and what once seemed in shocking bad taste had now become all too much a norm that even the redoubtable Waters could no longer top. That Waters seems fully aware of this is evidenced by his latest effort, the autobiographical Pecker. The title character is a fringe photographer (played by Edward Furlong) whose outrageous pictures catch on with a Baltimore gallery, catapulting him into the big leagues as a darling of the highbrow New York City art scene—a turnabout in his fortunes and in his low-rent career that costs him and his work its once-scandalous edge. To paraphrase John Huston's character in Chinatown : "With time, even politicians and whores grow respectable." This appears to go for the "prince of puke" too as the career of John Waters, which many early critics decried as evidence of the decline and fall of Western Civilization, seems a testament to Huston's words. One wonders. Can a Life Achievement Award for Waters from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be far off?
—Kim Newman, updated by John McCarty