The movie star grades the success of his own work

By Kate Meyers
April 29, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

John Waters is intelligent, charming, and slightly deranged. Okay, more than slightly. In his wonderfully warped world, ugly is often beautiful (like his prized photo of Margaret Hamilton, autographed ”WWW,” for Wicked Witch of the West), crime is celebrated (he took his mom to one of the Watergate trials), and odd juxtaposition reigns supreme (a text on Tourette’s syndrome is featured prominently in his guest room).

Waters’ latest film gives full vent to his obsessions, with an unusually A- list cast: Serial Mom offers up Kathleen Turner as a murdering matriarch (”the Breck Girl gone berserk,” says Waters), Sam Waterston as a befuddled dad, and Patty Hearst as a juror who is slain for making a fashion faux pas—” the only crime in the movie,” says Waters, ”that I really do think someone should die for.”

Turner wanted the role (”though one hates to feel that one is as tasteless and sick as John Waters,” she says), partly because she appreciates his portrayal of even the most grotesque characters. ”He treats them so kindly. He never puts them down. That really protects their weirdness.” It’s what Waters calls good bad taste. ”Good bad taste looks up to the subject matter, and bad bad taste looks down on it,” he explains. ”I never feel superior to my characters.” After all, this is the guy who was slicing organs on celluloid long before anyone heard of Lorena Bobbitt; whose cinematic creations included a girdle-wearing, egg-worshiping grandma; and whose idea of a happy ending is Divine snacking on dog doo.

With a $3 million price tag for Mom and an Oscar nomination on her resume, Turner is a drastic departure from the actor most associated with Waters, the transvestite comedian Divine. But Waters sees some similarities. ”They’re both very good actors, both are bigger than life, and they’re movie stars. There’s not many of those three in my book.” Divine, who died of heart failure at 42 in 1988, is still very much in Waters’ thoughts: He filmed Turner running down a teacher at Divine’s old school because he’ll never forgive the teachers there for how horrible they were to his friend.

That loyal sensibility explains why Waters, 48, still lives in his hometown of Baltimore, and why he still sports the same pencil-thin black mustache he grew 24 years ago to imitate Little Richard. Waters’ taste for kitsch is also undiminished: He lives alone in a house filled with antiques, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, plastic food-a prime rib here, some sushi there-and an occasional portrait of a serial killer.

But time has brought a few changes. Waters is mellower now than he was at 20, when he did everything on his films: wrote the scripts, scouted the locations, financed, directed, and produced. ”I used to say I wanted to die on a roller coaster that jumps off the tracks at a packed state fair,” he recalls. ”But I certainly don’t want that now. I’d like to die here in my bed, in my sleep.”

This strange sort of calm extends to his professional outlook. ”I take my career very seriously, but I have fun with the work,” he explains. ”I’m never saying this is some profound thing. I hate that. When people say ‘your art,’ I say, ‘Oh, please, I make movies.”’

And the movies he makes are so uniquely twisted they deserve their own crooked video-store shelf. Here is Waters’ own resume, with commentary and grades assigned by the auteur himself:

EAT YOUR MAKEUP (1968) Sixteen-millimeter black and white. The story of a deranged governess who kidnaps models and makes them eat their makeup and model themselves to death. Poorly filmed, except for parts. We did the Kennedy assassination sequence with Divine playing Jackie Kennedy climbing over the roof of the car in the pillbox hat and everything. For that alone I’ll give it a C+.

MONDO TRASHO (1970) Divine plays a blond bombshell in capri pants who, in one tragic day, witnesses a miracle in a Laundromat, is committed to a mental institution, and dies slowly in a pigpen. A trash epic, way too long. We were arrested (for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure) during the making of that movie. It’s got Divine for the first time in gold lame as the trashy persona that Divine later became. C+

MULTIPLE MANIACS (1971) Divine and her boyfriend run the Cavalcade of Perversion, where Divine robs and murders suburbanites. Memorable moment: Divine is raped by a 15-foot broiled lobster. It was my first movie with dialogue, and you can tell-people never stop talking. Heavily influenced by the Manson murders; at the time nobody had caught them, and we wanted to say that we did it. A reaction against the love-and-peace movement and (an example of) what I still do-find the liberals’ taboos and make fun of them. B-

PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) The movie that set a still-unmatched standard for midnight cult-film gross-outs casts Divine as a housewife bent on becoming ”the filthiest person alive.” To this day, the most notorious thing I’ve ever done. It’s a movie I never thought I’d be talking about in 20-some years. The thing I’m proudest of is it still works as much as the day it came out in getting a rise out of people. A-

FEMALE TROUBLE (1975) Divine plays tough-as-nails Dawn Davenport, whose life of crime begins after her mother doesn’t give her the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas. My favorite of my old movies-the only one that’s a little similar to Serial Mom. It’s the best-written, the strangest, and the closest to my heart. About somebody that confuses crime and beauty. At the end Divine gets the electric chair; to her that’s like receiving an Academy Award in her chosen profession. A

DESPERATE LIVING (1977) A lesbian melodrama about an upper-middle-class mental patient who terrorizes her family, then runs off with the maid. The least successful (of my early movies) financially. It’s a movie that hard-core John Waters fans like because it’s grim. I enjoy it, but it’s the last film I would recommend to somebody who hasn’t seen any of my films, because it’s joyless. B

POLYESTER (1981) Waters’ first foray anywhere near the mainstream featured Divine and Tab Hunter as love interests. It played in theaters with ‘Odorama,’ scratch-and-sniff cards whose scents included flowers and flatulence. I would criticize my writing at the end: The plot twist (in which it’s revealed that Hunter is plotting to institutionalize Divine) is pushing it. It was the first R-rated movie I made that wasn’t meant to be a midnight movie. It was the interim movie between making really insane movies and really insane commercial movies. A-

HAIRSPRAY (1988) Waters’ affectionate send-up of ’60s dance crazes and teen message movies was his final movie with Divine and his first with Ricki Lake; they played mother and daughter. It was the film that changed my career, the film that accidentally I made for everybody. It got a PG rating and I was stunned. It was based on (the controversy that arose over integrating) a real dance show that was in Baltimore. I gave it a happier ending than in real life. It was the only time that one of my obsessions happened to be something that didn’t make people nervous. A

CRY-BABY (1990) Waters’ version of an all-star cast-Johnny Depp, Traci Lords, Patty Hearst, Iggy Pop-in a spoof of ’50s juvenile-delinquent melodramas. That one I did try to make as a PG movie, and if there’s any mistake in it, it was that I tried to calculate something. Johnny Depp’s wonderful in it, and it did what he wanted-it freed him of being a TV teen idol. I’m from the ’50s and I have nostalgia for that, but many people don’t. Maybe the ’50s is used up. B

  • Movie
  • R
Complete Coverage