going mainstream? Say it isn't so.
Dubbed the Puke King, the Sultan of Schlock and other less flattering things by critics, this wildly off-beat director is now nearing 60 (next April 22). He is getting well-known talent to star in his movies and winning awards for his projects--something he says he never ever would have imagined. Still, the worst thing you could call him is "mainstream."
"People think I'm going more mainstream because Hairspray
[the musical] picked up some Tonys," Waters
said dryly. "Gosh, I hope that's not true. But what I find lately is that when I go out on my talks at schools, there are parents with their families. Parents are bringing their adult kids with them who watched Pink Flamingos
in the theaters, and that's just great."
Could the director/writer, who got a 300-pound drag queen to eat a dog turd for a movie, be something for the whole family to enjoy? After more than a decade of knowing John Waters
personally--through interviews and some charity fundraising events we were both involved in--I finally tested the waters, so to speak, by showing his movies to my own family, after threatening to do it for years.
My 75-year-old mom has always loved the bizarre holiday cards I've received from JW for the past decade, and my 78-year-old dad knows that Waters
shoots his movies not far from the Baltimore neighborhood where my sister and I were born. I'm now living with a very film-savvy sophisticated 10-year-old nephew and a 3-year-old nephew who giggles every time he sees a picture of the late Divine
. When the "Very Crudely Yours, John Waters" DVD collection arrived, I knew it would be a true test of Waters
"Sure, there are some movies of mine that kids shouldn't see, and there are some movies that old people shouldn't see either," Waters
For that reason, in the seven-film collection recently released, some of the early more raw works like Female Trouble
, Desperate Living
and Pink Flamingos
were viewed only by adults--my sister, my partner, a good friend, Matt, who identifies with the first title somewhat, and me. It's true that the murders, foul language, nudity and craziness is just a bit too much for the kids, but they know when I scream, "Where's that car antenna?" it comes from one of the forbidden movies by Uncle John.
The more family-friendly movies in the new collection
. We took the 10-year-old to the Hairspray
musical before he ever knew there was a movie, and he loved Bruce Vilanch as Edna Turnblad. Now that it has won an armful of Tony Awards, the musical is becoming a movie again. The same may also happen with Waters
' Johnny Depp
vehicle Cry Baby
, which just came out on DVD (separately from the Waters
collection) and is being revamped into a musical for Broadway soon. This DVD collection doesn't contain my mom's favorite Waters
movie Serial Mom
, nor my favorite of his, Cecil B. Demented
may have crude language, and may have been an early "coming out" for Tab Hunter
when he was kissing Divine
in the 1981 film, but the kids mostly like the Odorama scratch-and-sniff (yeah, there's a fart smell). During our interview, Waters
said he just finished reading Hunter
's autobiography, scheduled for release in October in which he talks about having affairs with men and women.
"Tab was really the reason for the great success of Polyester
. Because of him people came to see it," said Waters
, who is mentioned quite flatteringly in the book. "I think that the book is quite good and he's honest about what happened to him."
The DVD collection includes a "John Waters Scrapbook" with an audio track that has divided up a personal interview between Waters
over a timeline of their career and lives. It's funny, revealing and nasty, but it also shows that Waters
doesn't have any particular great design in taking down the fabric of the family in American society.
The movies I took home from the collection to watch on Father's Day in Florida with my folks were Pecker
' latest A Dirty Shame
, starring Tracey Ullman
. After all, dad had a heart condition and he was beginning to look like Edith Massey sitting in his wheelchair, so I didn't want to overdo it. "I love that Tracey Ullman
, does she still have her show?" mom asked. Dad pointed out that the last "X-rated" movie he saw with my mom (together) was Deep Throat
in the 1970s. A Dirty Shame
, which also stars Johnny Knoxville
and Chris Isaak
, was rated NC-17 and is about sexual addiction in suburban Baltimore. It didn't do all that well in the theaters (making only $1.3 million last fall), but perhaps will find an audience among families--or at least, families with a healthy notion of age-appropriate material that their kids should and should not be watching.
"I think that parents should control their children," Waters
commented. "I don't think that a 5-year-old should be watching A Dirty Shame
. My movies aren't your baby sitter, so shut up or don't have them. It's quite simple."
sent me back an email after I wrote him that I was watching his latest subversive film with my folks: "I'm thrilled that my movies can EVER bring a family together."
Perhaps A Dirty Shame
(which also had Selma Blair
with watermelon-sized breasts), didn't do so well theatrically because not many multiplexes would show the X-equivalent rating. The movie includes some obscene terms, and a few shots of male frontal nudity, but Waters
pointed out, "I learned some of those words from people under 18."
He thought he was being responsible with A Dirty Shame
, pointing out that all the fetishes he mentioned were safe. "I didn't put any fetishes in that were anti-women and it had to be safe and you couldn't get pregnant. I mean, I have to be responsible. Half of my friends died of AIDS in the '80's. So considering you read today that most eighth graders today have fellatio, you just wish they were sploshers."
He added, "The film is not explicit. They had to convince the newspapers that wouldn't carry ads. You have to convince some of the chains with landlord contracts that say they can't show an NC-17 movie. I came back from a European press tour for this movie and they laughed about that. They can't believe that this would be something that would really offend people."
He was in Europe during the last presidential election and shrugged, "I had voted beforehand which means that they never counted my votes because they only count the absentee ballots if it's close. So I guess my vote is in a garbage can somewhere. Some of the headlines in London were funny. One was 'Can 53 Million Americans Really Be That Stupid?' I'm not surprised though. I lived through Nixon. I've lived through many oppressive idiots."
He may sometimes side with the more conservative characters in his movies--like the repressive Neuters led by Mink Stole--who's been in all of his movies. "Sometimes I agree with my most hateful characters, I have to," he said. "I think the characters in my movies are lovingly shown. I think that my movies are joyous. I believe in the goodness of people and I think that you can tell that from my movies and I think that weirdly my movies are politically correct."
He made the very un-PC John Waters Christmas Album
and next February will have A Date with John Waters
just in time for Valentine's Day. "It has weird romantic music like if you came over to my house and I was trying to seduce you," he smirked. Waters
is an art photographer too, with work currently touring the Warhol Museum and at the Orange County museum this September. "It's very different," he insisted. "I'm still trying to have humorous comments in the art world on the movie business."
has always been obsessed with true crime stories, but he doesn't attend them anymore because he's too much of a distraction. He's best friends with Patricia Hearst, the publishing heiress who became "Tanya" after being kidnapped by the '70s-era socio-terrorist group the SLO, and he puts her in his movies now. Sometimes, the director, with the skinny gaunt face, casts himself in his movies, too. He's a voice in The Simpsons
, recently appeared as a sleazy reporter in Seed of Chucky
and was in the Woody Allen
film Sweet and Lowdown
"I always liked William Castle, I liked Alfred Hitchcock, I liked the idea that hopefully I could help sell the picture too because in the beginning we didn't have any money. So I had to be part of it too. Divine
and I would concoct all kinds of things to get people to write about us."
Now, at his book and DVD signings, Waters
' fans create the publicity. "Oh, last night a girl took her blouse completely off and did a full choreographed dance for me," he said. "I sign things and then they get tattoos on them. I didn't sign any penises last night, but I signed nipples. It's fairly routine. Penises I usually just initial."
He doesn't get surprised by much anymore. "Shock for the sake of shock is easy and simple and not funny and you don't change anyone's mind. It's not wit. I don't especially like it," he added.
"Am I surprised? I guess that I've been living with this for so long that I guess I'm surprised I haven't gone to prison or something." He was surprised that the Republican Convention didn't recommend Hairspray
as a show to go see, yet former President George Bush and wife Barbara went to the musical. "They danced outside with the drag queens and did the twists. You can't even get mad," he shrugged. "What can I say?"
In his characteristic suit and thin tie, and even thinner moustache, Waters
said he is already planning a new movie and never plans on retiring. "I like thinking up new things. My father is 87 and goes to work everyday and opens the mail at his company. He wears a suit and goes to work everyday. So I hope that I follow in his footsteps."
Likewise, he hopes others love and respect their families, and maybe even gather around to watch his movies together--or at least some of them. He signed the collection to my parents, "For Iggy and Rose."
Mike Szymanski is a freelance writer based in Hollywood who has written about the entertainment industry for nearly 20 years. He's known John Waters for more than half of that.