Baltimore native John Waters is a dapper figure, always immaculately groomed with trademark pencil-thin mustache and stylish dark suits and ties. Despite his fascination with all things filthy, the look seems to say, deep down he’s a real gentleman. Or perhaps his debonair demeanor is a mere façade to hide his idiosyncratic id.
Or maybe a little of both?
Waters is known as one of the world’s quirkiest film directors, but he’s also a successful artist, author, teacher and raconteur. Moreover, while it’s been said before, I must reiterate: He’s a genuinely nice guy.
In the film category, he’s probably best known for mainstream movies like “Hairspray” (1988) or “Serial Mom” (1994). Don’t get me wrong — these are fine films and filthy in their own way. In fact, these later works may be more influential because they are more palatable to a wider audience. But Waters’ lesser-known early works — quite shocking at the time — helped shape the “punk” movement by influencing countless film directors, actors, artists and writers.
For example, Louisville video artist Pam Swisher told me: “John Waters taught me to just do it. Get out there with whatever you’ve got — crappy equipment, crappy actors, a crappy plot — and do it. Do it because you have to, because there is no other way to get it out. The last thing you need to do is be scared.”
Waters showed us it was not only OK to portray outrageous acts on screen, it’s the only entertainment worth watching.
In 1964, at the tender age of 18 and using an 8-mm camera, he made his first short film, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” rounding up a cast from friends and people he met on the streets of Baltimore. This film — as all of his subsequent films — was shot on location in his beloved hometown.
Waters’ breakthrough came in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” a lurid tale of two camps battling for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive,” which Louisville filmmaker Ryan Daly says “impaired my perspective. To this day, whenever I drive past a trailer park or step in dog shit, I can’t help but think of John Waters’ tasteless masterpiece.”
Waters is also known for his frequent cast members, who became known as the Dreamlanders, his soldiers in a war against banality. They include his childhood friend, Mary Vivian Pearce, plus Maelcum Soul, Mink Stole, Edith Massey and, of course, Divine.
Pearce, with her Harlow-like beauty, has appeared in nearly all of Waters’ films. Soul, a beautiful bohemian in 1960s Baltimore, starred in Waters’ first two movies before she died in 1968. Mink Stole, who joined the Dreamland Players in 1966, has been one of Waters’ strongest female leads.
The auteur discovered Massey — short, portly and snaggle-toothed — when she was a barmaid at Pete’s Hotel in Baltimore. Born in 1918, Massey tried to make her way in Hollywood before hopping trains around the country and ending up in Baltimore. During the 1980s, she branched out into punk rock, recording “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Punks, Get Off The Grass” with her band Edie and the Eggs. She died in 1984, but her thrift shop, Edith’s Shopping Bag, is still open in Fells Point.
But Devine (nee Harris Glenn Milstead) was the most famous Dreamlander. When he was 12, his family moved six houses away from Waters, who was also 12 at the time. Picked on by schoolmates for being overweight and effeminate, Glenn later adopted his drag persona, “Divine,” in the mid-’60s, although he longed to escape the role later in his career. Weight problems ultimately led to his death in 1988 at age 42.
Waters’ own influences range from Kenneth Anger to Nick Zedd, with Walt Disney, Fellini, Herschell Gordon Lewis (director of “Blood Feast”) and Russ Meyer in between. In short, he’s at home with both high art and schlock.
One might expect the creator of such films as “Eat Your Makeup” (1968), “Multiple Maniacs” (1970) and “Cecil B. DeMented” (2000) to be antisocial or surly, but when I interviewed Waters by phone recently, I was immediately put at ease by his warmth, engaging friendliness and glittering intelligence. (In other words, nothing like most of his film characters.) I could listen to the man talk all night, and this Saturday you get your chance when Waters brings his one-man show to the Kentucky Center as the second installment of this year’s LEO Presents A Little Off-Center series. The evening with John Waters is billed as “This Filthy World.”
Tickets to the 8 p.m. show, in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater, are $28-$35, and are available by calling 584-7777.
LEO: Welcome to Louisville.
JW: I’m looking forward to coming.
LEO: I’ve been a fan since college.
LEO: I’m not going to say when that was. Have you ever been to Louisville?
JW: I have I think. But to be honest, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so sometimes they weirdly blend together, and cities changes so much, and America’s so similar. It used to be everything stood out when you arrived from the airport, and now every city, airport — it’s just the same. So I have been there and I’m quite looking forward to it. We’ve got art AND film — two things I always keep separate — at the same time!
LEO: So exciting! I think Louisville’s kind of like Baltimore.
JW: Yeah, I mean Baltimore now has real estate porn. People talk about how much they sold their house for. It has a lot of yuppies, people moving here because it’s still cheaper than anywhere else. But it’s still like “The Wire,” too. I love it. But the Baltimore that I make movies about is weirdly sometimes vanishing a little bit.
LEO: Last time I was there, I didn’t even hear the old Baltimore accent.
JW: Oh, you hear it. Believe me, every secretary in town says, “One myew-ment.”
LEO: What was it like growing up there?
JW: I grew up in a lovely neighborhood that was country and now it’s county. As soon as I could, I moved downtown. I lived on 25th Street in the middle of the race riots in the ’60s. There were armored tanks in front of my house since the neighborhood was in flames. But I had fun. I ran from suburbia and I’ve never run back. I’m good at high life and low life. The middle — I’ve always had problems. In a shopping mall, I’m terrified.
LEO: What can the audience expect from “This Filthy World?”
JW: My show is certainly a monologue that has been constantly rewritten for 30 years. It’s about all my obsessions. Everything from what you should wear if you get the death penalty, to what Edith Massey was like, the new kind of porn I’m interested in, what kind of movie I’m making next. It’s basically my obsessions.
LEO: Do you ever just go onstage and talk about whatever is on your mind?
JW: No. It’s completely written and rehearsed. I use no notes, and talk for an hour and 20 minutes. If something happened that day, I may change, but it’s endlessly rewritten. Even though most people think I’m making it up as I speak, which is the best compliment, I think.
LEO: What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened?
JW: One time, a girl took her Tampax right out from inside her and splotted it down and asked me to sign it. I did. She bought the book. A really long time ago, a punk rocker ran up right in the middle of a lecture and bit me. I got a tetanus shot. This was 30 years ago. That was when only “Pink Flamingos” was out, when I first started doing the college lecture tour. Basically, they would show up in the airport with all these drugs, and it would horrify me! I thought, “I’m not getting busted with these students.”
LEO: He drew blood?
JW: The one did, yeah. Later he ended up in a punk rock group called The The. I think he was the singer.
LEO: Maybe by drawing your blood he became famous.
JW: He got a vampire kick out of it. And I’m not telling you that to encourage others to do the same. I would not take it with such lightness today. I press charges on biters.
LEO: You talk about everything from your childhood to …
JW: Yes, certainly my childhood. And my happily childhood insanity when I was a kid. Really about how parents should support any of their kids, no matter how nuts they are as a kid. I had a great fantasy life as a child, and I ended up making a living from it.
LEO: Were you an only child?
JW: No, I was the oldest one. I have three brothers and sisters.
LEO: I don’t know why I thought you were an only child.
JW: Because I’m such a control freak, so you assume I was.
LEO: One of my best friends rented “The Diane Linkletter Story” to show at our college. It’s one of my favorite films.
JW: I talk about that a lot in the show. It’s not available, because to be honest, most people don’t even know who Diane Linkletter was. My favorite thing was, and I talk about this in the lecture, recently when Nixon’s Watergate tapes were still being released, it came out that Diane Linkletter actually had not taken LSD for a year before she committed suicide. Nixon and Art Linkletter conspired to blame Leary for that. I have a very good friend who lives in an apartment in L.A. and is in the film business — he had seen “The Diane Linkletter Story,” we’ve talked about it and all. After he moved in, he found out it was Diane Linkletter’s apartment and it completely freaked him out. He’s still freaked out about it. Even though they changed it so much that even the window isn’t the same she jumped out of. It’s been remodeled so many times. I went up there to try to get some vibes, but nothing happened. I didn’t have a séance. No cups jumped or anything when I walked in the room.
LEO: She wasn’t on LSD?
JW: She had taken LSD about a year earlier. So what? That was in ’69, this big scandal and all your parents went, “See? This is what happens when you take LSD!” And because Art Linkletter had “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Well, he’s still alive. He’s a big friend of Billy Graham’s. I’ve even seen where he’s made AIDS jokes before. But, still I feel sorry because his daughter died. But then he put a record out called “We Love You, Call Collect,” after her death, which I think was in worse taste than “The Diane Linkletter Story.”
LEO: I remember that!
JW: “Come home, call collect!” Oh my god!
LEO: Is there any chance the film will be available?
JW: I don’t think it will. You know, it was the only movie I never wrote. It was just ad-libbed. We shot it the day that it happened. I was testing a camera for “Multiple Maniacs.” It was the first time we ever had a sound camera. And she jumped that day, so we just shot it. And had it out before the funeral. It’s an instant movie. Something that today would be a lot easier to do with all digital cameras and everything. I think it’s a perfect exercise for kids in film school. Just read the paper every day. If I were a teacher, I’d make them do that. I’d pass out a paper — usually a tabloid would be the best — and then make them run out and make the movie of it. Go home, edit it and show it that night.
LEO: That would be fantastic! Another one of your early films I’ve never seen is “Roman Candles.”
JW: You never will. Those films have huge music rights issues. They were shown in church basements. I certainly didn’t even know then you were supposed to pay for music. There’s no dialog. It’s all music. It’d be like $500,000 on a movie that cost $100. So you’ll never see that.
LEO: Maelcum Soul was so beautiful.
JW: She was amazing. She was my first star before Divine. Even Divine was scared of her. She was a great bohemian, a great beatnik in Baltimore, who was a barmaid in a bar called “Marduks” where we used to hang out. She was really ahead of her time. She wore chalk white makeup every day of her life. Triple eyelashes, maroon hair, complete vintage clothes before anybody else did. She was a great influence on all my crowd when we were growing up.
LEO: I think everyone has a friend like that. But they always come to a bad end.
JW: Well, she just died from old age when she was 27. I visit her grave still. We used to go on Halloween and visit her grave all the time.
LEO: Where’s she buried?
JW: She’s buried in the Old Bohemian Cemetery — it means Czechoslovakian, that kind of bohemian, not the real kind that she liked.
LEO: Edith Massey is another favorite.
JW: One time in her thrift shop, a woman was trying something on and took her sweater off, and Edith didn’t know what her stock was. People just gave her stuff. So she sold her sweater without knowing it. The woman came out in her bra and said, “Where’s my sweater?” Edith said, “Oh, hon’, I’m sorry, I sold it. You gotta watch your stuff in here.” The woman went crazy and called the police, and Edith kept saying, “You gotta watch your stuff. I don’t know what I have.” And then she gave her some sweater, some good cashmere sweater. The woman was insane from it.
LEO: She was such a great actress.
JW: She was an unhinged one, let’s put it that way. She was my Gracie Allen.
LEO: Another favorite of mine is Mink Stole.
JW: She’s alive and well and lives in L.A. She’s been in a lot of movies besides mine. I think she’s at the Chiller Convention this weekend.
LEO: I love her character of Taffy in “Female Trouble.”
JW: Don’t you think Courtney Love stole her look? Mink used to wear Halloween costumes as a regular outfit. She would go to thrift shops the day after Halloween and buy like 20 Halloween outfits, like princesses, and just wear them as clothes all year. Which still is a good radical fashion look.
LEO: Do you think people could get away with making those scenes with Taffy today? (Note: There’s a scene where Taffy as a child is chained to a bed for punishment.)
JW: No, probably not. I hadn’t seen the little girl who played Taffy, but I was at a college, I think it was in Kentucky … what if it was Louisville? God, if it was, tell her to come again! She was in the audience, and still had the same hair. The audience went crazy. She still really did look like her. Her name’s Hillary Taylor. I hadn’t seen her in 20 years. She was a child when she made the movie.
LEO: What was Divine really like?
JW: When I met Divine, he was in high school and was a nerd that got beat up all the time. He had a lot of anger and a great sense of humor. He never went out of his house until he was 16. He just did his mother’s hair. Once he decided to go out of the house, he went out like a shot out of a cannon. People think Divine was a transvestite. He never was. He never went in drag except when he was making a movie. I guess he did for maybe a couple of months when he was young. At his high school prom, he took his girl date but he went dressed as Elizabeth Taylor, which is really mind-boggling when you think back on it. What did her parents think when he picked her up? He had a corsage and everything.
People always assumed he walked around looking like the characters in my movies. He never did — ever. When he died, he was supposed to have started playing the gay male uncle on “Married With Children” the next day, which would have been one of the first gay male characters on television. It could have been a huge success.
LEO: I’ve read that you have a hobby of saying inappropriate things to children.
JW: That’s my new hobby. Not sexual things. Things like, “Does your notebook smell?” Things that make them go “what?” I do it in airports and then move quickly.
LEO: By saying the unexpected, is it like creating your own special world?
JW: I’m creating my own special world … it’s a surrealistic moment when you say inappropriate things to children. I don’t say mean things or make them uptight. I just like to say confusing things to see how they react and the coolest kids react in a great way. They get in on it with you and one-up you. They say something back confusing. That’s only happened once. But that’s when I know that kid is going to be somebody I’d really like as an adult.
LEO: I’ve been doing that lately to my boyfriend.
JW: Just saying inappropriate things? That’s good. I even had a line in “A Dirty Shame” that a woman said to me once that seemed inappropriate. I was giving a college lecture and for some reason she was waiting for the plane, which I never make them do when I leave. But we were sitting at the gate, and she said, “Don’t you think it’s funny that every man here has a penis?” That was the oddest thing to say, but I knew what she meant. I used that line in “A Dirty Shame” 30 years later.
LEO: I’ve heard you collect art by criminals.
JW: Now that’s not true. Tell me which Web site you found that on. Every interviewer asks me that and it’s wrong! Where did you find it?
LEO: I thought I read it in one of your books.
JW: I have one painting by John Wayne Gacy. That was a gift. I do collect contemporary art. My house is full of contemporary art. But I do not have any serial killer art, except for one John Wayne Gacy painting that is up in the guest bedroom so people don’t stay too long.
LEO: Good idea!
JW: I always figure that when people do research for the interview, which is good, that it’s somewhere they all find it …
LEO: Didn’t you also have a painting of …
JW: Oh that! I have a painting of Gertie. But that’s not in my house. It’s over my studio. But, yes, that wasn’t BY a serial killer, it was OF one. I would say I probably have 400 things hanging in this house, and three are in that area. Someone sent me once the dirt from John Wayne Gacy’s lawn. I have that, too. What are you gonna do, throw it out? It’s in a jar, and if people are snooping around my house they’d find it, but that’s what they deserve to get. Because it’s labeled. I think if you were snooping and saw it, it would be rather an alarming find.
LEO: Back to “Female Trouble,” which to me is about the relationship of crime and beauty. Would you say it’s a commentary on the bloodlust of the masses?
JW: I think it’s more about … it was very influenced by Genet when I was young. And also the fact that I’m very against capital punishment. I taught in prisons for a long time. Last night I was at this event and the warden of the prison where we filmed that was there and I had not seen him since then. I’ve always sent him a Christmas card. He’s not in the corrections business anymore. But he was very brave to let us do that. We carried that electric chair through the gates of the prison and people were screaming because they don’t have the electric chair, they have the gas chamber. Divine was really frightened to go in that prison, especially with a shaved head and a woman’s jail outfit. We were obviously in a place that was not open to the rest, it was a closed off wing. I’ve always been incredibly thankful to that warden who allowed us to do that. This was way before “Hairspray,” when anybody who was anybody in power thought we were good, let’s say, to let us do that.
LEO: I assume you haven’t changed your views since making the film.
JW: Oh, no. I’m very against capital punishment. Because I’m afraid I’ll get it! Well, I COULD get it. We’ve all had bad nights, really. And believe me, everyone that does get it didn’t think they were gonna get it. Like when they were a kid, or the day they were born, their mothers didn’t think, “Oh, this one’s gonna get capital punishment.” I taught in prison for a long time, so I know the ones that do are obviously in real life very banal. They’re just very average. And it could be your son! I understand why people want it if their children were murdered by them. But if that same person’s son turned out to be the murderer, their opinions on punishment will change also. There’s no fair answer. That’s why it’s always interested me so much.
LEO: Let’s talk about your art.
JW: It’s a different subject that I try to keep very separate because it is very separate. I think in the art world, I’ve almost never done interviews about it, but I am having a show there in a very nice place (owned by) a collector of my work, so I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been doing it since 1992. I just had a museum show that opened at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. It went to Switzerland, and the Warhol Museum, and the Orange County Museum. I had a big show called “Unwatchable” that opened this year in New York and Zurich. So it’s a whole other part of my life that I’ve been doing for a long time. Basically, I take pictures off the TV screen of other people’s movies and take these images and rewrite a different script and storyboard and try to change the complete meaning of any of those images to a movie that I made up in my head.
LEO: What compels you to do that?
JW: Because I’m a big fan of contemporary art. I collect contemporary art. I go to all the galleries. It’s a world I’ve been in for a long time and have a great interest in.
LEO: I think it’s great. Unique.
JW: I guess it’s a different way to use my humor.
LEO: What’s your biggest regret?
JW: I don’t have any. I mean, not something that’s keeping me awake at night. Do I have regrets? Oh, I’m sure there were times I maybe was unkind to somebody I shouldn’t be, that kind of personal things, but small things, and I’m still friendly with those people. But a big regret, I don’t have. I’ve tried to be fair to people. I’m not a spiritual dude, but I do believe in the basic goodness of people. I think I’ve been pretty fair in my dealings with people. I’ve had a nice life. My career has been pretty much understood. I’m not an angry 60-year-old man, thank God, because they’re usually big jerks.
LEO: You sound very happy and content.
JW: Well, I’m not walking around like a moron, but basically I feel good. I’m having a good day. Glad it’s Friday.
LEO: One last question. Your art’s been shown in major galleries and museums, you’ve made movies and written books, you’ve had speaking tours, been on Broadway — what else is left for John Waters to do?
JW: Well, I’ve had some albums out, too. I have a Christmas album and I have a Valentine’s album coming out this year called “A Date with John Waters,” but I don’t sing on it, don’t worry. I’ve never written a novel, which I think would be the hardest of all those things, which is probably why I haven’t done it. I’m certainly not much of a poet, but I have written a couple of song lyrics, so I guess that counts. I’ve certainly never been a sports star … and I promise you I won’t be.
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