Minding his business: John Waters

I have known John Waters for over 37 years now. I was 24 when we first met in Baltimore at a birthday party for Divine. My roommate at the time, “Crazy Margaret,” took me as her date. I had just finished college and was working at my family’s insurance agency. At the time, I was living downtown, which was basically abandoned at night as everyone fled at five o’clock for the safe suburbs (with good reason as Baltimore had been declared the murder capital of America). The party was held at Leadbetters, a hole-in-the-wall dive located in Fells Point, a small pocket of urban renewal on the edge of East Baltimore, the neighborhood setting for many of Waters’ movies such a Hair Spray.

The streets that night were foggy and empty as we made our way to a bar sign hanging on a converted eighteenth-century waterfront warehouse. You could hear the loud music blasting from within. I entered and encountered a scene right out of a Pasolini film. At the center of the smoke-filled room was the Egg Man from Pink Flamingos, Paul Swift, completely naked and playing pool with fellow Dreamlander David Lochary. Leaning against the pool table with her back to me was a thin woman with beautiful straight black hair down to her waist wearing stilettos. When she turned to look at me, I was stunned; she was actually a very ugly man.

Before I could flee, Margaret grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bar to buy her a drink. She never had any money. There, leaning on the corner of the bar was John Waters, twenty-seven years old, surrounded by a coterie of admirers, puffing on a Kool cigarette and looking more like a young David Niven than the Prince of Puke. That night, I met Waters’ star, Mary Vivian Pearce, who was stunning in full Jean Harlow makeup, wearing a sheer dress so that you could clearly see her black lingerie underneath. After a few drinks I asked her out on a date. I was Bi in those days. She seemed amused by the concept but accepted. I gave her my telephone number. She wouldn’t give me hers.

Shortly thereafter I got a call, not from Mary Vivian but from John.

He needed production insurance for his next film in case someone sued him. What immediately impressed me in the conversation was John’s serious, no-nonsense business manner. Without my father’s knowledge, I sent the insurance application off to Lloyd’s of London, describing the risk as “Female Trouble, a children’s fantasy film.” It was immediately approved and my life in Baltimore immediately improved. When my father found out what I had done, he insisted that I go to the film set to make sure nothing happened. The day I showed up, John was shooting the crowd scene reactions to Divine’s trampoline act where “shim” points the gun at the audience. John was in complete control of the set, almost feared. There was no party atmosphere. And despite the large number of extras, everything went smoothly and professionally. I was impressed and relieved when John finished Female Trouble on time and with no insurance claims.

In my research for this anthology I have found a similar reaction by most of the interviewers when they first meet John Waters. They expect this wild outrageous personality and instead they encounter an articulate, well-read, extremely polite gentleman. John is known for his impeccable manners. When I traveled to Baltimore to visit the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Library, the curator of the collection effused about the thank-you note that he had received from Mr. Waters for helping him with research. The Maryland Room is a repository of the nearly four hundred-year history of this original colony founded as a religious safe haven for Catholics. John was raised Catholic, and his reaction against Catholicism is an important theme in his work and now archived in this hallowed hall. The curator pulled out a card catalogue drawer dedicated to John Waters.

To his and my surprise we discovered an old faded newspaper clipping stapled to one of the catalogue cards. It was the article I chose to open the book. Published in the Baltimore Sun in 1965, it is the first article to appear about Waters in a major newspaper. It clearly shows that even at age nineteen, he knew how to use controversy to draw attention to his first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. The article ends on a quote by his mother. She explains why her teenage son decided to give up putting on puppet shows for children’s birthday parties and started making movies: “It became embarrassing.” Little did she know just how embarrassing it would become. Shortly after meeting John, I was invited to his apartment at Temple Gardens overlooking Druid Park Lake. I was surprised at how meticulously it was organized. It felt more like a library with the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books lining the walls. There were even periodical polls carefully lined up holding daily newspapers from all over the country.

John Waters was then and still is a daily voracious reader of magazines, newspapers, and books. I believe that John Waters is one of the country’s leading experts on contemporary American culture.

By age nineteen Waters was already escaping to New York City to watch avant-garde films by the Kuchar Brothers and Warhol to name just two. His early influences and development as a filmmaker are covered in detail in one of the most comprehensive interviews, conducted by John Ives and excerpted from his book John Waters: An American Original.

Mr.Ives is an entertainment attorney/film producer. My favorite section ishis cross-examination of Waters about his creative process. It results in a detailed revelation of how he goes from concept to profuse notes to screenplay to the final print. John laments: “The day you make up the idea is the best. Making that real is always downhill, but you are not supposed to say that.”

Interview Magazine was created and first published in 1969 by iconic pop artist/underground filmmaker Andy Warhol. When John Waters was chosen by Andy to be interviewed in his magazine, it was like receiving an official public blessing from Warhol in front of the New York cultural elite. Fran Lebowitz and Danny Fields were dispensed to interview John. Lebowitz has been called a modern Dorothy Parker, and Fields is known in the music world for discovering and then managing the Ramones.

It was 1973 and Pink Flamingos had just premiered at the Elgin Theater in Manhattan and was playing at midnight screenings that were selling out. Even hardened, cynical New Yorkers had to be stupefied after reading this interview, especially the vivid description given by John of how he filmed the infamous dog poop scene. This interview, combined with Laurence Kardish buying a print of Pink Flamingos for the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art, confirmed that Waters was becoming recognized as a visionary filmmaker.

I was thrilled to finally track down Martin Falk and Bill George, founders and publishers of TLS, one of many emerging specialty “zines” that were started by fans in the seventies and focused on certain genres.

Bill George was also a partner in Baltimore-based Black Oracle, which evolved into the larger-format Cinemacabre, and later became editor of the Cinefantastique spin-off, Femme Fatales. Falk and George’s deep appreciation and knowledge of horror/fantasy films inspires a unique line of questions about Female Trouble, which followed Pink Flamingos. They are clearly knowledgeable about the influence of films by horror director Herschell Gordon Lewis on Waters’ work. You can also feel the pressure that John must have felt from fans of Pink Flamingos to make Female Trouble even more shocking. Female Trouble was an important turning point for John Waters, who defends his new creative direction by saying:

“I tried to make Female Trouble a little different so I wouldn’t paint myselfin a corner from just doing the same thing over and over again.” Many contemporary critics consider Female Trouble one of his best films. I have to agree with them, and not just because I make a cameo appearance in the crowd scene.

After Female Trouble John would ask me to go to the movies with him.

I would pick him up and we would head downtown to the Hippodrome, a decaying, elegant old theater which was originally a vaudeville house before it was converted to show films. The Hippodrome audience was predominantly African American, and no one ever complained about John chain-smoking during the film. I remember vividly the night we saw The Demon Seed.

The audience shouted at the screen, warning Julie Christie to stay away from that machine. John clearly enjoyed the vociferous viewer reaction. At the time, he was in the middle of editing Desperate Living, his first feature film without Divine in the lead and also without his longtime friend and Dreamlander star, David Lochary, who had died. In Louis Postel’s interview we learn: “There are those underground film pundits who said Waters could never make it without this berserk duo, but he did and did well.” Louis Postel was at the center of the Provincetown literary scene as the editor/founder of Provincetown Poets.

Waters has spent every summer since 1964 in Provincetown with many of his cast members. He wrote his early scripts there, including Desperate Living. P’town was an artists’ colony that attracted great writers and artists such as Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and Robert Motherwell. Gerald Peary in his interview entitled “John Waters in Provincetown” captures the significance of this eccentric town in Waters’ life and work. Peary has been a film critic for major publications for over twenty-five years and has written and edited eight books on film. He is currently the director of programming at the Boston University Cinematheque.

Those who love alternative independent cinema will appreciate the importance of the interview with John Waters by Scott MacDonald and his commentary, “The Philosophy of Trash.” MacDonald is a preeminent historian of American avant-garde cinema and is known internationally for his series of interview books, A Critical Cinema. Scott MacDonald is uniquely situated to assess Waters’s import and does so with this declaration: “Waters’ films are some of the most powerful send-ups of conventional film forms and expectations since Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou.

With his gross-out comedy “trash trilogy,” Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, Waters established his reputation as the “Pope of Trash.” In David Chute’s irreverent review of Polyester interlaced with his interview with Waters, he finds the director at a pivotal moment in his career: “Polyester is a frank attempt to break out of the midnight movie ghetto.” John describes his new subversive direction: “I think you can shock people in ways that aren’t so obvious. You can be a little more subtle about it.”

Subtle is not the first word that comes to my mind while watching fifties teen idol Tab Hunter making love to Divine playing suburban housewife Francis Fishpaw.

I remember when John first told me about his idea to create Odoramafor Polyester. He was so excited. I really didn’t understand the concept at the time or why I had to swear to secrecy. The night I first saw the Polyester audience using their scratch-and-sniff cards hoping to catch a whiff of a smelly tennis shoe made it all hilariously clear.

The Claude Brooks introduction and interview “. . . I’ve Always Tried to Sell Out,” is a very informative nuts-and-bolts look at the making of Polyester, including the refusal by some New York truckers to deliver the five hundred thousand scratch-and-sniff cards because of the smell.

John Waters refers to Hairspray as “a comedy about integration, hardly a safe subject.” Originally Waters was going to have Divine play both the mother and daughter role, but Bob Shaye, who ran New Line the distributor, talked him out of it. In the Kevin Lally commentary/interview we learn that Waters’ biggest fear was casting the lead. “I was terrified about who was going to be Tracy, because if you don’t like her, you won’t like the movie.” Hairspray turned out to be Waters’ most financially successful film and his most subversive film in my opinion. It also launched the career of its teen star, Ricki Lake. The film’s PG rating attracted a wide audience which has lured unsuspecting families to see Waters’ earlier films. It has resulted in lawsuits forcing Florida video stores to move copies of John Waters’ Hairspray to the adult section.

Sadly, Divine never got to relish the box office or critical success of Hairspray. He died from an enlarged heart on the evening of March 7, 1988, just a week after the film was released.

It was due to this box-office success that Waters got the opportunity with Cry-Baby to make his first Hollywood movie. Ron Howard’s company, Imagine Entertainment, financed the picture starring Johnny Depp. In Pat Aufderheide’s article/ interview, she finds Waters at the top of his career. She is invited by him to see his newly purchased house in Baltimore and gets the grand tour.

He refuses to let her take a picture of the outside of the house out of fear that fans will find it and leave dog poop in bags on the front steps. Apparently, it had been a recurring problem. Aufderheide takes us onto the set of Cry-Baby where we meet Patty Hearst and learn about how Waters convinced her to be in his movies. Waters’ films celebrate the outsider.

He states in this interview that his work “is part of a life-long campaign against people telling you what to do with your own business.”

Waters has always been fascinated by crime and trials since an early age. He attended the Manson trial, the Patty Hearst trial, and the McMartin trial, to name just a few.

In Serial Mom, Waters has Patricia Hearst play a key juror in the murder trial of Kathleen Turner’s character. In his interview with James Grant, Waters clarifies, “It’s the infamy of crime which has really always fascinated me. Much more than the crime itself. That’s what Serial Mom is about.”

I once asked John if Pecker was his autobiographical movie. After all, his parents, like Pecker’s, were very supportive of his artistic interests, and it was his grandmother who gave him his first movie camera. John responded, “All of my films are autobiographical.”

In Gerald Peary’s second interview with Waters, we get to hear about the challenges the director faced by naming a film Pecker and the inspiration for the scene in which the New York Times art critic is teabagged.

Backstage Magazine specializes in providing professional information to actors. It is therefore not surprising when the interview conducted by editor-in-chief Jamie Painter Young about Cecil B. Demented opens with the question, “Is there such a thing as a ‘John Waters actor’ or ‘acting style’?” What is surprising in this interview is the candid and insightful response from Waters of how his directing style has changed since his early movies to his new, more naturalistic approach, which he began using with Hairspray. Waters states, “It seemed more shocking to have actors saying the words as if they believed every word of it.”

There is still controversy surrounding the novelist J. T. Leroy who claimed to be a seventeen-year-old gay hustler and ex-heroin addict who grew up in West Virginia with a crank-making daddy. Later it was discovered that J. T. was actually a forty-year-old woman who was an ex-porn writer and phone sex operator living in San Francisco. Waters’ work was at the forefront of gender bending. This interview by J. T. Leroy with John Waters reaffirms Oscar Wilde’s notable quote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”

A Dirty Shame is Waters’ last film as of the publishing date of this anthology.

It is one of my favorites, with Tracey Ullman in the lead as a raging sex addict. I still have a promotional button that was given out at a critics screening in Los Angeles. The button says, “Let’s go sexing . . .”

The film was released right after the Janet Jackson incident where she exposed her breast on national television while performing at half time for the Super Bowl. It caused a national uproar over indecency, which may be the reason that A Dirty Shame was slapped with a NC-17 rating. In his interview with Planet Out editor Jenny Stewart, Waters reveals the secret special effect used in the Tracey Ullman dance scene with the water bottle.

Since A Dirty Shame Waters has not made another feature film; independent film financing is very difficult to find and with the “Great Recession” it has become nearly impossible. Many studios such as WarnerBrothers have closed their independent film divisions. Undaunted, Waters wrote the sequel to Hairspray, called Hairspray: White Lipstick, which never happened. He was also paid to write a Christmas movie, Fruitcake, but the company has since gone out of business.

Waters says, “You must constantly reinvent yourself to keep up with the next generation.”

He has certainly done that with his art work/photographic collages, which he has been creating for nearly two decades. His photo collages have been exhibited at galleries and museums all over the world. Todd Solondz, awarding-winning filmmaker best known for his dark comedies, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, interviews Waters about the 2004 retrospective of his work co-curated by Lisa Phillips and Marvin Heiferman at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Solondz’s interview and the interview by novelist, poet, and art critic Dennis Cooper in BOMB magazine explore the themes that inspired John Waters’ films and how those themes continue to inspire his artwork.

Waters explains to Cooper the advantages of the art world over the film world: “We know the wonderful great thing about the art world is that you have to appeal to about three people. Which is such a relief to me.”

I recently attended one of Waters’ spoken-word performances where he shared that he still remembers the moment when he was in high school and heard that comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying a four-letter word on stage. Like Bruce, Waters has no sacred cows or taboo topics in his lethal social commentaries. Fortunately, he is not performing in the fifties, as I believe after the authorities had seen just one show, Waters would have been imprisoned for a long time. One of his spoken word performances is captured in the documentary, This Filthy World. In the Steve Appleford review/interview we learn why Waters believes it is so vital for him to keep performing.

You would never think of John Waters as a songwriter, but if you study the music credits of Female Trouble, you will see that he wrote the lyrics to the theme song with Bob Harvey and also wrote the lyrics for “Gas Chamber” in Serial Mom, sung by L7. In the Michael Franco interview for Popmatters.com, Waters discusses working with music consultant Larry Benicewicz, who receives credit on six of his movie soundtracks and assisted him with the selection of songs for A Date with John Waters and A John Waters Christmas. In working on the compilations for his albums, Waters professes, “I go through thousands of records.”

One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is receiving a John Waters Christmas card. Last year the card was a portrait of John by Richard Louderback, with “Merry Xmas” etched into his glimmering teeth. I attended a Christmas party at his apartment after the making of Female Trouble. Instead of decorating a tree, John had decorated the electric chair from the movie with Christmas lights. Of course, there is no Christmas scene more infamous than the one in Female Trouble when Dawn Davenport stamps on her Christmas presents because she did not receive cha-cha heels. In Randy Shulman’s holiday interview, Waters provides some suggestions of how to deal with abusive family members at Christmas.

In my final interview with Waters for this anthology, we met at his new apartment in San Francisco on Nob Hill. When I entered the lobby, it immediately reminded me of his old apartment building in Baltimore.

John met me at the elevator when I arrived at his floor and the first thing out of his mouth was, “I know. It reminds you of Temple Gardens.” The view was not of Druid Lake but a panoramic view of San Francisco on a rare clear day. As we stood at the window together, he reminisced, “I lived in my car five blocks from here. And I’m the same. I just pay more for clothes now to look homeless. I don’t think I’m really that different. My last movie had censorship problems (A Dirty Shame). So it’s not that different. I was happy then, I’m happy now.”

This interview was originally published HERE.

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