HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 17, 2000 - He's been known as the "pope of trash," the "king of suburban exploitation," and other similarly flattering titles. And in a directorial career pushing 26 years, 15 oft-revolting films have spawned from his gross-out mind, any of which could make the Farrelly brothers' films look like Disney stuff.
After years of cult veneration, John Waters -- America's campiest film auteur -- is inching within reach of the pop-culture radar with "Cecil B. Demented," another absurd exercise about a guerilla filmmaker (Stephen Dorff) who kidnaps a movie starlet (Melanie Griffith) to sabotage the Hollywood system.
Waters on the set of "Pecker" While the plot might be offbeat to those accustomed to romantic comedies or blow-em up actioners, the flick is actually one of Waters' most mainstream to date.
It lacks (perhaps mercifully) the outrageous, tasteless stuff of his early work, like the dog poop-eating transvestite (the late, great, 300-pound Divine) in 1972's "Pink Flamingos." Moreover, Waters' movies have become decidedly more "normal," for lack of a better term, since he split from his old partners-in-crime, the Dreamlanders, a motley crew of actors including Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, David Lochary, Mona Montgomery and the aforementioned Divine.
To give you an idea, here's a brief rundown of the director's films:
"Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" (1964) A 8mm short, shot on roof of his parents' house, the film follows a wedding between a black man and a white girl with a Ku Klux Klansman performing the ceremony. The 17-minute short is rumored to have cost a total of $30.
"Roman Candles" (1966) His second 8mm, this one's got 40 minutes worth of plotless meandering involving sex (between a priest and a nun) and random readings from the "Wizard of Oz."
"Eat Your Makeup" (1968) Moving up to the world of 16mm, this film, clocking at 45 minutes, follows a governess and her boyfriend as they kidnap hapless models, then force them to do the title act and model themselves to death. "Mondo Trasho"
"Mondo Trasho" (1969) A 16mm full-length feature (135 minutes), the haphazard story follows a young fashion slave who chances upon a foot fetishist and ends up getting her toes sucked in a local park. And like we said, that's only the beginning.
"The Diane Linkletter Story" (1969) Largely improvised, this 15-minute short is based on the true-life suicide of Diane Linkletter, daughter of TV personality Art Linkletter.
"Multiple Maniacs" (1970) Also 16mm, it has Divine playing a ringleader of a traveling carnival that's entertaining and murdering its audiences. "Pink Flamingos"
"Pink Flamingos" (1972) Competitions soar as a group of weirdos attempt to wrest the title of "The Filthiest Person Alive" from trailer trash Divine. Besides the poop-eating scene, there's the equally bizarre act involving a chicken and Cookie Mueller.
"Female Trouble" (1974) This one tracks the slow demise of one doomed teen (Divine, of course) as she goes from juvenile delinquent to serial killer, all because her parents refuse to buy her cha-cha heels for Christmas.
"Desperate Living (1977) After a rich housewife kills her husband, aided by their fat maid, the two go on the lam and find temporary refuge in a criminal colony. "Polyester"
"Polyester" (1981) A moneyed housewife (Divine) living in the 'burbs tries to get a handle on things while her son goes crazy, her daughter gets knocked up, and her porno-king husband leaves her for his secretary. The original theatrical release of the film came with Waters' patented "Odorama" scratch n' sniff cards.
"Hairspray" (1988) Making her feature debut, Ricki Lake, with a head of huge hair and all the right moves, triumphs over many things including Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry to become reigning queen of a popular TV dance show.
"Cry-Baby" (1990) A "West Side Story" musical on ... something. Amy Locane plays good girl to Johnny Depp's bad boy as they, in love story cliché, fall in love despite opposition from all sides. Watch for Patty Hearst, who makes her feature debut with this flick. "Serial Mom"
"Serial Mom" (1994) Instead of popping Valium, soccer mom Kathleen Turner prefers to spend her time, er, killing random people.
"Pecker" (1998) Edward Furlong plays a kid working at a sandwich shop who suddenly becomes the sh*t of the New York art world.
John Waters gives Hollywood the finger with this comedy about cinema purist Cecil B. DeMented and his band of guerrilla filmmakers who kidnap the industry's hottest leading lady Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) during the Baltimore premiere of her latest film a "life-affirming screwball comedy" called "Some Kind of Happiness." DeMented and the group live Rocky Horror-style in an abandoned warehouse with plans to save the public from bad movies while shooting their anarchist film. Honey is won over helping to cause terror at location shoots including an attack at a multiplex screening of "Patch Adams: The Director's Cut." (Hey these guys aren't all that bad!)
Griffith either can't get work or has a great sense of humor. Why else would she play this far-out send-up of a Hollywood glamour girl who is all glitz in public all bitch in private? Cheers to her for taking bold risks and coming out on top. Stephen Dorff is over the top as the title character (even for this film) but still scrapes up laughs with his maniacal rage. Ricki Lake takes a break from her daily TV sleaze getting back to what she does best. Other Waters regulars including Mink Stole and Patty Hearst also return.
Anyone not familiar with the director/screenwriter's work should be cautioned that navigating this Waters could be rough sailing. Some of his films ("Polyester " "Pink Flamingos") would make the cast of "American Pie" blush. His dialogue is stiff and strained and his actors look like they're stuck in an awkward high school play. That said "Cecil" is full of hilarious jabs like the showdown with fat lazy teamsters on the set of the senseless sequel "Gump Again."
Brace yourself Dr. Laura. This clueless teen queen (Natasha Lyonne) has it all: good looks a football captain boyfriend and a popular pair of pom-poms. But her candy-colored world crumbles when her panicked parents stage an intervention after finding a Melissa Etheridge poster that leads them to conclude she's a friend of Ellen. After being carted off to an anti-gay rehab camp for teens the perky princess must choose between the straight and narrow-minded or the love that dare not speak its name.
The quirky ensemble casting is half this film's fun. Lyonne is charming as the pepster tempted by T&A and she sparks onscreen with swanky and sexy co-star Clea DuVall who plays the butch femme fatale suitor (alarmingly reminiscent of Nancy McKeon's Jo from "The Facts of Life.") Drag queen supreme RuPaul is unrecognizable out of his high heels and even higher blond wig wearing a "Straight is Great" T-shirt as a macho militant ex-gay counselor. Cathy Moriaty is sweetly sinister as the homophobic headmistress and Mink Stole steals scenes as the uptight upright meddling mom.
Kudos to Jamie Babbit for tackling this hot-potato topic but this well-intentioned film too often misses its mark turning potentially comical scenes into unbearably awkward moments. Babbit fouls when tugging at the heartstrings but hits home runs when the humor is at its broadest.