Legendary director John Waters in Orlando for Come Out With Pride

By : Stephen Miller
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ORLANDO – Who’d have thought that a commitment to bad taste would change cinema – and comedy – forever?

In his 60-plus years as a filmmaker, best-selling author, cartoon voice and onstage performer, John Waters has done just that. As part of Come Out With Pride’s Out in the Open Film Festival, Waters is bringing his one-man journey in the world of misfits to Orlando. For one night only – Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. – the legend will present An Evening with John Waters at The Abbey, filling the downtown performance venue with his off-color stories, sharp wit, and even sharper mustache.

“It’s about celebrating not fitting in, including not fitting in the gay world if you’re gay,” Waters said during an hour-long telephone interview from his home in Baltimore. He’d just returned from Provincetown, where he spends his summers.

At the age of 15, Waters started filming his family and neighbors with just a hand-held camera. Later he roped in friends that included drag legend Divine and camp queen Mink Stole. He also found fascinating local freaks like Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey. Using these subversive characters, Waters infused popular cinema with previously unfathomable levels of violence, absurdity and the grotesque.

Nowadays, it’s the stuff of gag-worthy legend: Divine eating real dog feces (Pink Flamingos, 1972), or getting raped by a giant paper-mache lobster (Multiple Maniacs, 1970), and Kathleen Turner killing Patty Hearst with a shoe (Serial Mom, 1994).

Demented Duo: A young John Waters, with his drag doppelganger, Divine.

DEMENTED DUO: A young John Waters, with his drag doppelganger, Divine.

Somehow, from 60s homemade shorts to 70s shockers to 80s musicals and 90s big-budget black comedies, Waters slowly gained acceptance in the world of mainstream entertainment. He became a best-selling author and talk-show regular. He’s even the voice of John the Shopkeeper on The Simpsons.

Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner and Johnny Knoxville clamored to work with him. Hairspray and Cry-Baby became Broadway musicals – the former earning five Tony Awards including Best Musical, touring forever, and now being performed in places like Eustis.

Waters tackled a wide range of topics during his interview for Watermark, and offered some surprising opinions.

WATERMARK: Can you tell us a little bit about your show?
JOHN WATERS: I’ve been doing a version of it for forty years. But this specific night is gayer… and filthier. It’s a self-help lecture. It’s about true crime, it’s about movies, it’s about art, it’s about fashion, it’s about sexual politics – you know, everything.

It’s always updated, always changing. I read like a hundred magazines a month because I’m always looking for new stuff. I have a prison version, a gay version, a horror version, a foreign version. I always adapt it to who the audience is going to be.

Will there be any weird props from your old movies?
The set is up to the place I’m playing. I only ask for a nice vase of flowers on the stage. But to be honest, I don’t need any scenery. Once I get going, you’re not going to look at scenery.

The Abbey is a great venue.
At a gay event you always expect a little more panache. But I’m not demanding anything, believe me. I have the shortest rider of any speaker ever.

Any special plans while you’re in town?
I never get to do anything in town. I’m usually in, do my show, off to bed and on a plane to the next one the next day. The only people I meet are usually the people at the show.

You’ll meet my neighbor Jesse at the show. He’s a super fan. He’ll be the one with the word “cracker” tattooed on his neck.
For real? I assume he means like a hillbilly and not the character “Crackers” in Pink Flamingos.

Could be. That movie is one of his favorites.
(Laughs) That movie has not gotten any nicer with age. I’ll look for him. My fans are great. Some get there early, and get drunk and by the time the show starts they’re passing out. They laugh too hard at everything you say in the first five minutes, and then they puke. I’m trying to think… I don’t think I’ve ever had a heckler in my entire life.

You have such iconic items in your films… the giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, the roach dress in Hairspray, Divine’s red dress in Pink Flamingos. Is that stuff warehoused somewhere?
It depends. I have a film archive at Wesleyan University, and it has everything from my films that I could get my hands on. The roach dress that Rikki Lake wore is there. I don’t think that red dress survived. The lobster definitely is not. My production designer Vincent Peranio created it. He was in it with his brother; you can see them… they’re the feet of Lobstora. It was made of paper-mache and rotted so we took it to the harbor in Baltimore before it became a kind of yuppie place. Back then it was all rats and sailors and stuff. We just threw the lobster in the water and gave it a burial at sea.

Most of the other stuff is there at Wesleyan. It’s mostly the later stuff. With the earlier stuff we didn’t know anyone would care! I don’t have anything about my career in my house at all.

Baltimore uses you in their tourism promotions now.
As long as they don’t put out my address! I don’t respond well when people knock on my door. I even have my fan mail delivered somewhere else.

Is there any thought to a museum?
No, I don’t want that. It all goes to Wesleyan when I’m gone.

You started making films in 1964. Do you think it took the mainstream media a long time to find you?
I don’t think it took long at all! I always got coverage. No one said my movies were great for ten years or so, but plenty of people said they were bad. They noticed! My audience was part of a cultural war going on in the 60s. The film critics were very square and very straight. We used their negative reviews.
In fact, I built a career off of negative reviews! I’ve always believed I was enough of a showman to do that.

In the beginning I didn’t mind negative reviews. I was just glad to be reviewed at all. But as I got older, bad reviews got harder and harder to take. I’ve always said, “You read the good ones twice and the bad ones once… and then you put them away and never look at them again.” And responding to your critics is a sure sign of a real amateur.

In the 60s the bad reviews helped me, but that wouldn’t happen today. Now all film critics are hip; there are no square film critics anymore – at least very few.

Gene Shalit is still out there.
I am not mentioning anyone’s name! (Laughs) You. Never. Answer. Your. Critics. If you do, the critic always gets the last word.

I always felt Roger Ebert got what you were doing.
Well, I could debate that! On my later films he gave me some of the worst reviews I ever got in my life! That hurt in the Midwest.

Hairspray and Cry-Baby were turned into musicals. Do you have any other material that would make a good musical?
Cry-Baby was a flop on Broadway, which I thought was weird and really sad. We got four major Tony nominations, and then we closed. Hairspray was a dance movie. Cry-Baby was a musical movie. But there are some obvious choices from my other material. I think Serial Mom would work as a weekly TV show, and if you took the sex out Pink Flamingos would make a great weekly cartoon show for children… it would just be a battle of filth. Desperate Living should be a theme park. I could see A Dirty Shame on ice. I try to think of ways to re-imagine all of them. I want them all to be reinvented and out there working – it’s their duty!

What about Female Trouble?
That’s my favorite of the Divine movies. I always felt it was the best way to remember him. If you saw I Am Divine, the documentary about him, then you know he wasn’t like his characters. He didn’t live like that.

It’s terrible to say, but Divine’s life has a perfect dramatic arc for documentary.
Well, it has a sad ending. He died a week after Hairspray opened – right before he was to go on Married with Children playing a gay uncle. It probably would’ve been very special and it never happened. He wanted to play men just as much as women. He had no desire to be a woman.

Do you want to make sequels to any of your films?
I wrote a sequel to Pink Flamingos called Flamingos Forever. And I was paid a lot of money to write a sequel to Hairspray, which I called White Lipstick. It hasn’t happened yet. I was also paid to do a TV series based on Hairspray. I wrote the pilot and the bible for the whole series. That also hasn’t happened yet.

So, I could! The real sequel to Hairspray would be a bit of a downer though… and a drama because once the real ’60s happened the dance show would go off the air. Everybody changed! The integrationists became hippies, and the ones that still wanted to tease their hair stayed home and never did anything again.

Yeah… I guess it would have to devolve into the ’70s and ’80s…
… and by then I’d even quit taking LSD!

For me it would have to involve Duran Duran.
Well, that’s what nostalgia is… an obsession from your particular youth. But I try to picture it all seamlessly. I always think that tomorrow is going to be better than anything I remember. I’m an optimist.

When you were working with Divine, Mink Stole, Jean Hill… did they just agree to appear in your movies or were you consciously trying to introduce people to these remarkable characters?
I looked for Jean Hill. The story is that I was living in my old apartment, and I asked this black guy who was an actor if he knew any 200-pound black women. He said, “I know one who weighs 400.” That was Miss Jean Hill.

With Divine and Mink, I wrote parts for them. But I stopped doing that right after Divine died. I didn’t want to write parts just for specific people in case they couldn’t do it.

Besides, all the money people wanted me to use Hollywood movie stars, which none of the people I worked with were against.

How did you find Edith Massey?
Edith Massey lived in Fells Point, which was one of the worst sections of Baltimore. It was the place where homeless sailors lived; the waterfront nobody wanted to visit. Vincent Peranio did all the sets and stuff for all my movies, and he had a house there that was like $30 a month or something. A lot of people lived there. It was like a commune. And next door was a bar called Pete’s Hotel, which you can see in Multiple Maniacs. That’s where Edith worked as a bar maid. Vincent and the rest of the house used to go in there because drinks were like 20 cents. They told me, “You’ve got to meet this woman.” I put her in Multiple Maniacs playing herself, basically. Audiences liked her, so next time she got a bigger part.

I know you’re a bibliophile. What’s the last really good book you read?
Wait a second… let me run into the other room and grab my books. (Pause.) I’m still unpacking from Provincetown. Let’s see, I read Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America. I read Jack Be Nimble, which is the biography by Jack O’Brien, who directed Hairspray on Broadway. I’m a big fan of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, and I read a book of hers called Troubling Love. I read Eric Fischl’s book Bad Boy.

And my summer book was Dreadful. That’s a term for gay people – “dreadful” – which is now one of my favorite terms. I was out with three dreadfuls just last week. I don’t have the author right in front of me, but it’s good.

What was the last great movie you saw?
That’s a tall order – great movie? I guess it was Our Children, this Belgian movie based on a true case about this woman who ended up killing all her children. (Laughs) Not exactly a feel-good summer movie.

I think Woody Allen’s new movie, Blue Jasmine, was quite good. And I liked this documentary called The Act of Killing, which is one of the most shocking documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s where war criminals who were never convicted reenact their crimes for enjoyment, like a reunion. And I liked The Bling Ring, Sophia Coppola’s movie.

You’ve worked with Turner, Depp and Knoxville. Is there anyone else in Hollywood you’ve always wanted to work with?
Certainly Meryl Streep, of course.

Do you see ways that your films have inspired others?
I’m not sure I’ve inspired others. If I have, maybe it’s in a bad way. I mean, sometimes Hollywood tries to do bad taste, and sometimes I love it – like Bridesmaids and The Hangover. But many times they’re trying too hard, and it’s not witty. It’s easy to be gross. It’s harder to be funny. So maybe I’ve been a bad influence on big-budget Hollywood movies.

I don’t see anyone today going as far as you did with comedy?
There are plenty of filmmakers that are nothing like me, but I think they make great movies – extreme movies. Like Lars Von Trier. They’re usually Europeans.

(Laughs) Well, I wouldn’t call what Lars Von Trier does comedy! I want to ask about your curating… and you’re writing, too.
I’ve curated a few times, but I have art shows all the time – one in Berlin, one in London, one in New York in 2014. I have many different ways to tell stories.

And I was proud that my last book was a best seller. I just turned in my new book, Carsick, which comes out next year. It’s about when I hitchhiked across America by myself. I did that for a year back when I was young.

I’ve read Crackpot and Shock Value, but I admit that Lapsed Agnostic is still on my to-read list?
Well, and then you’ll have Carsick next year.

Switching gears, there’s this eternal question in the LGBT community about whether we should assimilate or whether…
What does that term mean?

Assimilate? I think it means that gay people look and act enough like straight people that we don’t make them uncomfortable.
Oh, I don’t think it means that. I think assimilation means there’s no need for gay separation because there’s complete acceptance. And I believe in that eventually… eventually.

But gay people changing so that others approve… I am vehemently against that! I am the opposite. I am tired of gay people having to be good all the time.

Are you okay with labels within the LGBT community… like “bear” and “otter?”
Where I live, all the straight boys are bears and don’t know it.

I am against separatism of any kind, including gay separatism within its own ranks. I think people should have diverse friends… women and men of all sexual tastes and colors and everything. I don’t understand wanting to hang around people who look and act exactly like you. I think that’s incredibly dull.

I don’t know what I am any more. I don’t think I’m a bear. I don’t have any leather, except for a nice fall jacket. I don’t own any flannel, and I hardly ever wear jeans.
(Laughs.) You’re not a bear. I guess I’m a polar otter.

All the labels are kind of funny to me. People pick them and talk about them so seriously, as if they’re talking about a political party. I certainly talk a lot about the incredible slang and the limits people put on themselves in my show. Also, the limitations I put on myself. My entire career is about limitations, in a way.

You’ve said you were always out?
Well no, I didn’t say that because it used to be illegal. I figured everyone just knew. The way people talk about coming out these days, it makes it sound like a Bar Mitzvah.

I was on the cover of a gay ‘zine really early, but it wasn’t because I was brave. It was because nobody else would put me on the cover! I just went with who liked me. I guess I was always gay, but I always had straight friends, too. I hung around all different types of people. My friends were always the outsiders… people who didn’t even fit within their own minorities. And those are still my favorite people.

Some times the gay community can have more rules than my parents had when I lived at home! I rebel against that, too!

You know this celebration you’re coming to in Orlando is called “Come Out with Pride?”
Yes, and I’m totally for that! I believe that whenever anyone comes out, it makes it easier for others. That’s why the Republicans finally caved in on gay marriage mostly… because they found that it was irrelevant. They found out they knew someone gay. And every program on television had to have a gay character. This is what made it progressively become legal.

But I also believe you should be able to “come in.” I mean, people are allowed to be wrong. I had a gay friend who later had a girlfriend. He was thrown out of the gay community, and I thought that was ridiculous! We should have a “Coming In Day” for the one percent that found out they were wrong. Or maybe they like both. Or maybe they don’t want to be labeled.

True! It’s all about who you fall in love with. I’ve felt for a very long time it’ll definitely be a man.
Yeah, but do you have to go register? I mean, what if you switch to a woman, do you have to go change your registration? (Laughs) It should never be a numbers game in the gay community. It’s not about how many we get; I think it’s about the quality.

Yeah… and if there is a gay community, I’ve met some I don’t want in my club.

There’s certainly a risk in admitting that there are gay jerks. Like every black person is good, every gay person is good. That’s ridiculous!
I went with the Governor of Maryland to campaign for gay marriage. I’m all for it. And I really hope that we have out gays at the Winter Olympics in Russia, because I want some real trouble there: Gay Trouble at the Olympics!
Here in America, the straight community is certainly more accepting of the gay community than they’ve been before. Is the gay community more accepting? Don’t make me laugh!

What about the people you celebrated in your early films – are they more accepted?
That has nothing to do with the gay community. Jean Hill was active in the gay community, but she was straight. Edith Massey was straight. Divine was gay, but I don’t think that was ever the first adjective that came up for him… or any of them. It was never the base of their identities.

You’re coming to Orlando. Any thoughts on theme parks?
Well, when I was young, I was totally against all the theme parks because they wouldn’t let long-haired people in. And then Gay Days came along! I think it’s because for some reason all animators seem to be gay – more than hairdressers! I don’t know why.
I’ve worked for Disney, and it was a huge influence on me. Sometimes I’m a voice on Fish Hooks, a show that Disney produces. I wanted to be a Disney villain all my life. I was always rooting for the villain. I wanted to be the stepmother, and I thought Disney did them so well. Look at Mink Stole in Desperate Living – she’s totally Disney!

Now they have The Simpsons – Springfield USA at Universal. Are you going to show up there as John the Shopkeeper?
(Laughs) I don’t know. The Simpsons was so good for me. I mean, kids still walk up to me in the airport and that’s all they know me from. It certainly was fun and an honor to be asked.
You know, though, my favorite amusement parks are old, rickety, rundown ones – right before they close them. I liked Coney Island before they started fixing it up. I love old roller coasters that look like they’re going to collapse on us.

Anything else you’re looking forward to in Orlando?
I have an old friend who lives there, and I’m looking forward to seeing her. I’m not there for very long, but I’m definitely looking forward to the people I’ll meet at the show.

What: An Evening with John Waters
Where: The Abbey, 100 S. Eola Dr., Orlando
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 1
Tickets: $39 general admission and $150 for Meet-and-Greet at comeoutwithpride.com/tickets/

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