To a misfit kid, growing up on the other side of the tracks in a single-parent family and noticeably queer in an isolated part of the (pre-decriminalization) Irish countryside — an environment akin to the purgatorial villages conjured up from the dark depths of a Patrick McCabe (THE BUTCHER BOY, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, WINTERWOOD) novel — John Waters was a beacon of light in this short-fused, monster-loving little outcast’s dark night of the soul.
A saint of filth and champion for the freaks, geeks and outlaws, Waters is a filmmaker whose motion pictures have been defying all standards of decency and shattering taboos since the 1960s – a sleazy successor to controversial purveyors of perversion once at the forefront of schlock and shock exploitation filmmaking: Doris (A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER) Wishman, Ed (GLEN OR GLENDA) Wood, and Herschel (2000 MANIACS) Gordon Lewis, artists infamous for pulpy B-movies, educational mockumentaries and quasi-horror skin flicks.
Waters taught me there is nothing interesting about a healthy mind — the defining attributes of his output were skewed-glamour, obscenity, human grotesquery and pitch-black humor. Filth was his politics, filth was his life! His thoroughly indecent excursions into morality-free territories of bacchanalian bad taste offered moviegoers a bold voice for the underdog — and a transgressive role model for monster kids.
His characters were, for the most part, gender-bending cannibals, bourgeois baby-farmers, suburban serial-killing moms, cinematic terrorists and scantily-clad nymphomaniacs; his movies were populated by larger-than-life miscreants who might have staggered drunkenly out of a Diane Arbus exhibition.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 22nd 1946, John Waters’ very existence was, from a young age, a direct and vivid assault on American conservative values; his insane plots boasted some of the most outrageously funny, innovative and revolting footage ever committed to celluloid, where concepts like dignity and decency were routinely skewered.
The polymath (writer, performer, director, former NYU student) worked closely with his own deviant family: The Dreamlanders. Friends, neighbors and relatives who fit perfectly into the world of his movies, the committed production crew (Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, et al) were with Waters from the beginning and repeatedly compromised themselves to ensure Waters’ work became cult hits.
The short films Waters made in the ’60s showed the director already possessed a flair for the offensive and ruthlessly funny: the plot of HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET featured an interracial wedding officiated by a klansman; THE DIANE LINKLETTER STORY could have been searingly libelous; and EAT YOUR MAKEUP was a tale of enforcing femininity (and death) on reluctant teenage girls.
Below are a few of John Waters’s greatest achievements… including a few movies which have actually broken obscenity laws over the years.
Divine: The Artist’s Muse
First things first: one of the biggest factors in John Waters’ success and infamy is the legendary Divine. Divine was The Sexiest Woman in the World… almost. The biggest draw for Waters’ films in the ’70s and ’80s and appearing in nearly all his earlier work, the sultry sex symbol stole every scene with her controversial dialogue, rapier wit and flamboyant performances.
The man behind the make-up was Waters’ lifelong friend Harris Glenn Milstead, a wealthy Baltimorean and talented character actor who made Divine his armor. Milstead died right on the cusp of achieving mainstream success, after bagging a role in popular sitcom MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. Divine was also a recording artist, with several pop hits under her garter belt, and you can listen to one below:
In this sleazy black-and-white homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis with shades of Ingmar Bergman, Baltimore is outraged at Lady Divine’s cavalcade of perversion — a fifth-rate porno show and sideshow attraction that has upwardly mobile, decent, family-oriented American citizens recoiling in disgust at the assorted “sluts, fags, dykes and pimps,” whose peccadilloes are displayed to the law-abiding locals for a small fee. The sideshow is actually a front for Divine’s other nefarious activities — namely a murder and robbery syndicate with Lady Divine and her ghoulish subordinates relieving people of their wallets… and occasionally their lives!
A coming-of-age fable, Waters style, FEMALE TROUBLE follows truant-prone teen runaway Dawn Davenport (Divine) who splits from home after a Cha-Cha Heels related incident on Christmas morning, and after a fumble in a ditch with an anonymous grease-monkey (also played by Divine) she winds up pregnant. Dawn is no dumpy hausfrau, but a potty-mouthed, elegantly coiffed, big-haired glamazon with a homicidal temper — so when she meets fickle fashionistas The Dashers, any thought of motherhood is immediately sidelined after she enters into a Faustian bargain with the devious duo. It ends in tears… and mass murder.
This darkly comic satire stars the amazing Kathleen Turner as the cookie-baking, PTA-attending, devoted wife and mother Beverly Sutphin — who has a macabre secret life as a serial killer! The murderess corresponds with Ted Bundy, makes obscene phone calls to the long-suffering Dottie Hingle (Mink Stole), and views most of her neighbors as serial-killer fodder. Beverly’s suburban facade begins to crumble when she kills a teacher in a hit-and-run, beats an old crone to death with a leg of lamb and crushes a man with an air conditioner. There are some controversial Waters casting choices, with Patty Hearst and Traci Lords making blood-soaked cameo appearances.
Flame-haired Bourgeois bitch and baby-farmer Connie Marble (Mink Stole) is murderously envious of the white trash, 300-pound drag superstar Divine’s fame and notoriety, and wants to usurp her as The Filthiest Person Alive! This escalates into to chicken sex, coprophagia (shit-eating) and selling infants to wealthy lesbian couples, as Divine soon finds herself at loggerheads with rival Connie and her husband Raymond.
Stunningly, Waters recently adapted PINK FLAMINGOS as a child-friendly stage-play! Only Waters could edit this concept down from an X rating to a PG-13 — trimming away all the sex, violence and bad language to make this trailer-park fable acceptable for a preteen audience.