Waters, John: Cult Figure–Part Two (LGBTQ, Gay)

Early Life and Career

Waters was born on April 22, 1946 in Baltimore, Maryland into a middle-class Catholic family. He’s the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker) and John Samuel Waters, a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment. Waters grew up in Lutherville, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and inspirational muse, Glenn Milstead, who later changed his name into Divine, also lived in Lutherville.

Growing up in Baltimore, Waters realized that he wasn’t like other kids, as he recently recalled: “I used to come home from kindergarten and tell my mother about this really weird kid in my class; he only drew with black crayons and wouldn’t talk to other people. I talked about him a lot. “My mother mentioned it to the teacher, and she said, ‘Well, that’s your son.’ I was creating characters, really.” His mother would say, “‘Oh, he’s just an odd duck. Each to their own said the old lady as she kissed a cow.’” Waters holds that his mother regrets ever saying that, “because I took it much more seriously than she ever imagined.”

The strange, the lurid, and the forbidden have always fascinated Waters. Ironically, he fed his mind through mainstream avenues. “Life Magazine was the biggest corruptor of youth,” Waters said. “They don’t realize it. It was the magazine that every family got, where I learned about homosexuality, I learned about drug addiction, abstract art, beatniks and hippies –everything–in Life magazine. I couldn’t wait to get it every week. And I also learned from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which every family had. All those subjects other children might have been looking up –dinosaur –I wasn’t.” Instead, he devoured all those “horrible subjects that I was obsessed about, knowing that I knew I wasn’t supposed to know about them. Disease. Censorship.”

From early childhood, Waters was intrigued by stories about devious subjects, criminals, murders, car accidents. A sharp observer of the “strange” aspects in everyday reality, he was more interested in the denizens of the working class than in members of his own milieu. He recalled his fascination with garbage collectors: “In our neighborhood, you always left the garbage man liquor at Christmas. I always wished that garbage men were my secret friends. I love when they pull up in Baltimore and go ‘Hoo!’ That’s when you have to run out and give them liquor or money or whatever.”

The MGM hit movie “Lili,” directed in 1953 by Charles Walters, starring Leslie Caron and featuring the popular song “Hi Lili,” had a major impact on the young Waters. At the age of seven, enchanted with puppets and showbusiness, he reportedly staged shows that were sort of gross and violent versions of “Punch and Judy” for children’s birthday parties. Waters’ mother believes that the puppets in “Lili” had the strongest influence on Waters’ subsequent sensibility.

The legendary fantasy fable “The Wizard of Oz,” made in 1939 and starring Judy Garland, also proved influential to the creative mind of the young Waters—as it did to David Lynch and Gus Vant Sant (See later). Waters told Robert K. Elder in an interview for “The Film That Changed My Life: “I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes, and great dialogue. I think the witch has great dialogue.”

A great fan of Little Richard’s music while growing up, Waters claims that ever since he had shoplifted a copy of the song “Lucille” in 1957, “I’ve wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard’s body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities.” In 1987, “Playboy” magazine assigned Waters to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well. Waters later remarked that “it turned into kind of a disaster.”

Tacky films (“B” flicks) at a local drive-in, which the Waters family watched from a distance with big, primitive binoculars, also left long-lasting effects. By age thirteen, Waters became, by his own admission, an avid reader of the trade magazine “Variety,” the Bible of Showbiz. Waters attended the Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson. For his sixteenth birthday, he received a precious gift, an 8mm camera, from his maternal grandmother, Stella Whitaker. At high school, Waters was in a “beatnik” phase, a tough act to pull off in a place like suburban Baltimore. “My parents didn’t know what to do,” he recalled, “they’d dropped me off at this beatnik bar and hoped I’d meet some nice people.” Then one day, his mother took a quick look and said, “Is this camp, or just the slums?'”

Waters’ first short film, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” made when he was seventeen, starred his childhood friend Mary Vivian Pearce. The tale concerns a white woman and a black man’s wedding, shot on the roof of Waters’ parents’ home. The man woos the lady by carrying her around in a trash can and chooses a Ku Klux Klans man to perform the wedding ceremony. It was shown once or twice in a “beatnik” coffee house in Baltimore. In later years, it would be included in his traveling photography exhibit.

Waters enrolled at New York University (NYU), but as he later recalled: “I was there for about five minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking. I went to one class and they kept talking about “Potemkin” (Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece, aka as “Battleship Potemkin”), and that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see ‘Olga’s House of Shame.’ That was what I was more into.” Made in 1964, “Olga’s House of Shame” is the third in the sexploitation series starring Audrey Campbell. It was helmed by the hack director Joseph P. Mawra and produced by George Weiss, who also was behind the notorious feature by Ed Wood, “Glen or Glenda,” and other flicks. A surprise hit, the trilogy paved the way for the hard-edged sex films of the 1960s, and later the psycho-stalker films of the 1970s.

Waters has credited as significant influences the gay German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, American Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Italian maestro Federico Fellini. But he says he has derived joy and pleasure from high-brow “art” films as well as sleazy exploitation films: “I love both Ingmar Bergman and ‘I Dismember Mama.’”

In 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the campus grounds, which led to expulsion from NYU. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed several shorts, “Roman Candles” and “Eat Your Make-up.” He then wrote and directed two features, “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs,” crude movies shot in 16mm and in black and white. Jointly, they introduced Waters’ formative vision, defined by offensive satirical mode, bad taste, and camp humor, all of which would become his trademark.

Over the years, Waters has created screen characters with alliterated names, including Corny Collins, Donald and Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Rickettes, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward. It has become a popular trivia pursuit game to guess the origins of his characters’ names–Ursula Udders may be the easiest of the bunch.

Some of Waters’ films had premiered at Baltimore’s Senator Theatre or at the Charles Theatre. Later, they were among the first features to be picked up for distribution by the fledgling New Line Cinema, established in 1967 by the visionary lawyers and film lovers, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynn. With few exceptions, New Line would produce and release most of Waters’ pictures.

Waters exploded into the cultural scene in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” his third feature and first in color, a darkly comic, unwholesome parade, featuring murder, bestiality, rape, dismemberment, coprophagia, and other dizzying sexual perversions “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” and “Desperate Living,” which Waters himself had labeled the “Trash Trilogy,” contest the boundaries of conventional morality, challenging American censorship. In these camp movies, he places “filthily lovable” characters in outrageous and deliberately contrived situations, investing them with stylized and hyperbolic dialogue. Thus, a notorious scene from “Pink Flamingos” added as a non-sequitur to its ending. It shows in one continuous take–without the benefit of any artifice or special effects–a small dog defecating and Divine eating its feces.

Waters’ early work offered a unique vision, a distinctive perspective on American life. He rose to fame with a series deviant films, which went on to become cult works. Shaggy, amateurish, Baltimore-set and shot, his comedies wink jabs at transgressive themes. American suburbanism has been Waters’ most consistent target, his pleasure dome. In the 1980s, Waters’ films have become less controversial and more mainstream, though works such as “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” and “Pecker,” still maintained some outrageous elements, if not the crass camp humor and shocking inventiveness of the earlier features.

Ironically, Waters is one of the richest independent filmmakers, due to royalties from the Broadway adaptations of his films. Waters mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, the setting of all of his films. But he also owns properties in New York City and San Francisco, and a summer home in Cape Cod’s Provincetown. Instantly recognizable by his trademark pencil-thin moustache, Waters has sported this look for four decades. Provincetown’s residents (the “townies”) continue to marvel at his down to earth friendliness. He loves riding his bike on Commercial Street (the town’s Main Street), wearing a jacket and a bowtie, greeting fans and visitors with a big smile on his face.

Since the 1990s, Waters has been making photo-based artwork and installations, which have been internationally exhibited in galleries and museums. Waters considers his art work to be conceptual, as he said, “the craft is not the issue here. The idea is, and the presentation.” In 2004, the New Museum in N.Y.C. presented a retrospective of his artwork curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips. More recent exhibitions include “Rear Projection” in April 2009 at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, and the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. The pieces are often humorous, such as “Rush” (2009), a super-sized, tipped-over bottle of poppers (nitrite inhalants), which many gays and straights use to enhance sexual activity and dancing energy on the disco floor. “Hardy Har” of 2006 shows a photo of flowers, squirting water at anyone who traverses a taped line on the floor.

Puffing on a cigarette, Waters has appeared in a short film shown in art houses announcing that “No Smoking” is permitted in the theaters. This short was shot for the Nuart, a Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, in appreciation to its showings of “Pink Flamingos” for years. The featurette screened before his film, and before the midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the 1975 film that became a cult phenomenon after failing in its original theatrical release.

As an actor, Waters has appeared in some of his own pictures. In “Hairspray,” he cast himself as the psychiatrist who recommends electroshock therapy for a Caucasian girl who’s in love with a black guy. In 1986, he made an appearance in the TV-Movie, “Passion Flower,” and as a car salesman in Jonathan Demme’s dark comedy, “Something Wild.” He has also played cameos in the 1989 feature “Homer and Eddie,” in “Jackass: Number Two,” which starred “A Dirty Shame” star Johnny Knoxville, and provided a character voice on “The Simpsons,” the popular animated Fox series. Waters played a small role, paparazzo Pete Peters, in 2004’s “Seed of Chucky,” and a minister in “Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat,” which was directed by one of his idols, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and is a sequel to one of his favorite exploitation films. In 2007, Waters became the host (“The Groom Reaper”) of “Til Death Do Us Part,” a program on America’s Court TV network, based on dramatization of marriages that soured and ended in murder.

Public recognition for Waters’ work came earlier than he had expected. In 1975, “Pink Flamingos” was accepted into the permanent collection of the prestigious Museum of Modern Art, which has one of the world’s best and largest film departments. In 1991, Waters was honored by the Angelika Theater in New York with a week-long retrospective, aptly titled “Midnight Madness: The Films of John Waters.”

Openly gay, Waters has been a strong supporter of gay rights and gay pride. Among many duties, he’s been an active participant of the Provincetown International Film Festival, from its inception in 1999. In 2003, in commemoration of Vincente Minnelli’s centennial, I presented along with Waters the gay-themed, heavily censored melodrama, “Tea and Sympathy,” as opening night of the festival, held in the wonderful Drive-In at the neighboring town of Wellfleet. In 2009, Waters advocated the parole of former Manson family member, Leslie Van Houten. He then devoted a chapter to Van Houten in his book “Role Models,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010.

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