“I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value.”
TRQ: John Waters, Born April 22, 1946
Director, writer and artist John Waters, named the “Pope of Trash” by counterculture writer William Burroughs, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Born into a Roman Catholic family, Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland with his friend and muse Glenn Milstead, who eventually came to be known as Divine.
Waters attended the private Calvert School and Towson Jr. High School and earned his high school diploma from Boys’ Latin School of Maryland. As a teenager he frequented the beatnik bar Martick’s in downtown Baltimore.
Waters credits seeing the movie The Twilight Horseman with Elvis Presley in 1956 for discovering his homosexuality. Asked by the French publication Telerama if he remembered his first “stir” at the cinema, Waters responded with his characteristic candid humour.
“The first film that I wanked on? [Laughs.] Certainly. The Twilight Horseman with Elvis Presley. Elvis made me realize that I was gay. No one had ever told me about masturbation and when I discovered this practice, I was convinced I had invented it!”
Waters studied film at New York University for a short time before being expelled for a marijuana incident. Waters returned to Baltimore in 1966. There he began working with Divine on transgressive film projects inspired by the work of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, and the Wizard of Oz.
Throughout the 1970’s Waters began to develop a cult following with his “Trash Trilogy” films: Pink Flamingo (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). Subversively revealing the influence of both highbrow art films and lowbrow exploitation films, Waters’ early films aimed for transgression, shock and repulsion. His stable of actors, under the name of “the Dreamlanders,” included Divine, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey and others.
Beginning in the 1980’s Waters began to move the sensibility of his work towards the mainstream. Polyester, filmed in 1981, co-starred Divine and Tab Hunter, the one-time teen idol. Seven years later, Waters released Hairspray, which became his first box office hit. The PG-rated Hairspray stars Divine in his final movie role, along with Ricki Lake, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, and is intended for a wider audience than earlier Waters films. Receiving critical acclaim, the film regularly ranks as one of the greatest movies of all time. Sadly, Divine died from a heart condition only three weeks after Hairspray premiered.
“Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made,” Waters once explained. “The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America – and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys.”
Throughout the 1990’s Waters continued to make a play for the mainstream. Cry-Baby, starring then-teen idol Johnny Depp, along with such recognizable names as Iggy Pop and Traci Lords, was released in 1990 to positive reviews but a tepid box office performance. Serial Mom, released in 1994 and starring Kathleen Turner, opened to mixed reviews. Pecker (1998), packed a widely recognizable cast that included Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, and Martha Plempton, also met with mixed reviews and poor box office performance. As one of his last stabs at mainstream success of that decade, Waters released Cecil B. Demented in 2000, starring Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Michael Shannon and Maggie Gyllenhall. Initially, it failed to win favour with either critics or audiences. However, as with most of Waters’ films, it went on to achieve cult status.
A Dirty Shame (2004) is the most recent film directed by Waters. With its NC-17 rating, the film marks something of a return to his transgressively camp form. It stars Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, and Chris Isaak. With a budget of $15 million, the film’s failure to earn more than $2 million at the box office has made it difficult for Waters to make another movie.
While not making movies, Waters has published twelve books, worked with photography and art installations. He has shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 2014, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album.” In 2015, the British Film Institute celebrated Waters’ career, giving some of his films their first screening in the UK. The Maryland Institute College of Art awarded Waters an honorary degree in 2016. In 2018, the French government named Waters an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.