John Waters celebrates 50 years of Pink Flamingos: 'I saw people puking in the theater'
1972's Pink Flamingos is not the first of writer-director John Waters' films to be released as part of the Criterion Collection. But it is the first by any auteur to feature the sight of actor and drag artist Divine eating actual dog poop. So how does Waters feel about his now 50-year-old trash classic joining the likes of Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai in the catalog?
"Well, I've been praying to the Holy Trinity of Pasolini, Genet, and Warhol for decades that that would happen, so my prayers were finally answered," the filmmaker, 76, tells EW. "Yes, I'm thrilled. After they did Multiple Maniacs, Polyester, and Female Trouble, I was just hoping that they would do this one to give the final seal of respectability to the most unrespectable film ever made!"
In the film, Divine plays a criminal who battles a pair of kidnappers, portrayed by David Lochary and Mink Stole, for the title of "the filthiest person alive," a contest the former comprehensively wins by eating dog excrement.
"That was always the end," Waters says of the sequence. "It was a publicity stunt, basically, and one that would frighten hippies. Divine liked the idea of causing trouble. We were all potheads, so the idea made us laugh. I had a history of knowing about exploitation films, and how they worked, and I was trying to make exploitation films for art theaters, which had never been done. It worked and I won the contest. I've never tried to top it since and no one has really. Maybe Johnny Knoxville."
Did Waters keep in touch with the dog?
"Yes, the dog came to the premiere," says the director.
Waters explains that the inspiration for his third film came from the crazy times in which the Baltimore filmmaker found himself living.
"It was 1971 when we made it, [that] was really when the '60s exploded," he says. "Everything went crazy. I had just been to the Manson trial. It was one of the most insane times ever, so I think it reflected that culturally."
Waters got the budget for the film from his parents who he made swear never to watch the finished movie.
"My parents did pay for it," he says. "I paid them back, with interest, and they never saw it. They knew about it but they never saw it and why would I make them suffer through Pink Flamingos? What parent would be proud their son made Pink Flamingos? Even today, it would be tough."
By the time of the shoot, Divine, Stole, and Lochary were Waters regulars, having all appeared in the director's previous films, 1969's Mondo Trasho and 1970's Multiple Maniacs.
"It's like every kid that makes a movie, they were my friends," says the director. "You know, today, if you have a kid and they make a movie on their cell phone camera, they use their crazy friends. That's just what I did. We had already made many movies together. Mondo Trasho, where we had been arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. We had made Multiple Maniacs that had actually gotten some showing outside [Baltimore]. It played in Los Angeles, it played in Boston, Philadelphia. So we did have some luck with that."
Waters' friends weren't always up for the director's crazy ideas as the filmmaker discovered when he announced his plan to set Stole's hair on fire.
"That was just me thinking on pot," he says. "I wasn't being cruel or evil or Manson-esque. When she said, 'What are we going to do about that?' I said, 'We'll throw a bucket of water over you when we say cut. She said no."
The film was released by New Line Cinema, which distributed barf bags to audiences.
"Well, that was a ripped-off idea," says Waters. "It was originally done with Mark of the Devil, the horror movie. New Line thought up that idea, which I thought was fine. Did anyone ever use it? I think I saw people puking in the theater, but I don't know if they ever used the bag or not. I think most people kept the bag as swag. The Criterion DVD has a facsimile of them, so you can get the barf bag. The Criterion one is awfully little. It would be like an anorexic puke. Maybe it's for a model."
After its initial release, Pink Flamingos became a mainstay of the burgeoning midnight movie circuit but not everyone welcomed Waters' film. According to the director, the movie is still banned in Hicksville, Long Island.
"I never won [obscenity cases]," he says. "Because at midnight, Pink Flamingos is joyous, it's exciting, the audience love it. But if you're sworn in on jury duty in a courthouse, sitting there next to a stranger, watching a singing asshole at 7:30 in the morning, I promise you, it is obscene. It's all about geography. I would just plead guilty, which was a $1,000 fine, and the lawyers usually cost more than that. Still, in Hicksville, New York, on Long Island, technically, if they ever show Pink Flamingos, Bob Shaye, the head of New Line, and I can go to prison, because we signed a thing saying, if it ever played there we would go to prison. And I do believe Pink Flamingos may have played in Hicksville. I don't know if I'm wanted by the police, but I never drive by that town in case."
A half century on, Pink Flamingos continues to pack a deliriously deranged punch.
"Pink Flamingos might actually be worse, because of political correctness, even though the morals of Pink Flamingos are politically correct," Waters says. "The right person wins. So Mink Stole and David Lochary's characters are the ones that are politically incorrect because they do evil things, and they're jealous, and they judge others. Divine is just trying to coast on her mantle of filth and have a happy life with her f---ed up family in the woods."
In decades since the release of Pink Flamingos, Waters would direct a string of more mainstream, if always idiosyncratic, movies including 1981's Polyester, 1988's Hairspray, and 1994's Serial Mom. These days, the always dapper filmmaker has become a beloved, even respectable, pop culture figure, who recently published his first novel, Liarmouth. Waters will soon receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which immensely pleases the so-called Pope of Trash.
"Of course it does," he says. "It was sponsored by L.A. Outfest and they paid the expenses and I'm really thrilled. I wish my parents were alive to see it."
"I didn't write this," Waters continues with a chuckle, "but someone commented, 'Now, he's even closer to the gutter!' It's perfect."
The Criterion Collection release of Pink Flamingos is now available to buy. Watch a trailer for Waters' film below.
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