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At age 12 John Waters made his first foray into showbiz as presenter of successful birthday party puppet shows.
“I’m probably gonna come back to that at the end of my life,” Waters joked in a recent telephone interview from his Baltimore home.
But at the time, he was serious about his mission in life.
“I got Variety when I was 14,” he said. “I was in showbusiness.”
Puppet shows eventually evolved into making ultra-low-budget movies – indie movies they might call them today, underground movies they called them then – with a cast of outsider Baltimore characters. At the time and to this day, those early movies disgust and baffle some, but with the mellowing effect of time, and a filmography that includes several mainstream hits, finally last month Waters was embraced by establishment Hollywood by becoming the 2,763rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“That was astonishing,” he said of the experience. His face seemed to be everywhere that weekend. “I told the publicists my mother used to say ‘Fools' names and fools' faces always appear in public places.’ She thought you should only be in the newspaper when you were born, married and died. But she laughed about it. Even at her funeral I read that quote out and the whole audience laughed.”
Well, did you ever imagine that one day this would come to be?
“I understand the question,” Waters said, “but I didn’t not imagine it. I didn’t think it was impossible. When I first drove to Los Angeles, across the country with friends, we got out at Hollywood and Vine and walked across the street. I got a jaywalking ticket. That’s true. But when I walked up and down there, I thought, I’d love to add my name here. I’d already made a movie. My parents raised me to believe I could get anything I wanted if I believed in it and worked hard enough for it, even though they were horrified about what I wanted to do.”
And it does seem astonishing that someone who set out to disturb and challenge society through subversive film should ultimately be embraced by the society he satirized.
For an example of the contemporary reaction to his work, Variety, the magazine the 14-year-old John Waters obviously respected as a showcase of showbiz – was one of many media outlets that trashed his early feature films, in particular calling his third feature, Pink Flamingos, “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”
A more recent internet blogger said this about Waters’ 1972 movie: “To recommend this movie would mean I hate you. It means I wish you to experience this abomination without your consent. This isn’t a movie you recommend to anyone.”
“I have met many people who told me the person they married, their first date was Pink Flamingos, and I’ve had many say that the worst date they ever had was when they took someone to Pink Flamingos and never spoke to them again,” Waters said. “It’s a make or break evening.”
Cinematic provocateur is a tag most often associated with Waters, but for two nights this month at the West Theatre he will be John Waters, raconteur, in a show he calls The Devil’s Advocate.
“So, here I come. I’m coming to you,” he said. Without asking, he adds, “I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Duluth. Maybe to a university. I’m not sure. I’ve been doing this for 50 years so sometimes when I go to a place, ‘Oh, I’ve been here!’ I have flashbacks. So, we’ll see.”
Waters was cagey about revealing anything about the show, but he did mention that he has just one Trump joke.
“I get why Trumplicans love him,” Waters said. “Who would go to their rape trial and say to the female prosecutor, ‘You’re not my type.’ That sounds like Saturday Night Live. In my show my only Trump joke is what I think his type is, and you’ll have to wait for that.”
In an interview with the Guardian last year, Waters accused Trump and his family of killing the very thing that Waters has made a career of – bad taste. I have to ask about that.
“He did. His wife’s Christmas decorations was the final nail in the coffin of good bad taste,” Waters said, his voice rising to incredulity as he adds, “And now I read she’s selling them! She has a line of them that no one even makes fun of. That just proves what I said is true. The irony of bad taste is over because of Trump.”
Waters said he used to have more Trump jokes, but “I don’t use them anymore. I don’t rise to the bait because that’s one thing I’ve learned. They absolutely love it when we get mad at them, but I also don’t cut off people that are for him. I’m not a separatist. I think that the way we can win this election is to not make the enemy feel stupid – make them feel smart, make them laugh. Maybe then they will listen. And then maybe we’ll win. We have to learn which battles to pick. Do your crazy shit after we win.”
Waters admits that attitude is a far cry from the “insane radical” he was in the 1960s.
“Even when I was insane radical in the ’60s, we had a sense of humor. Abbie Hoffman was funny,” he said. “We did worse things in the ’60s. We would have taken a shit in [Vice President Spiro] Agnew’s office. The Weathermen were bombing things. I wasn’t a Weatherman, but I was a Weatherman hag. Didn’t the Weathermen bomb the Capitol? I think they did.” (Yes, they did, on March 1, 1971).
"I personally did not,” he adds.
“I remember in the ’60s seeing hippy drag queens reading Lenin and the Communist Manifesto, thinking the revolution was gonna happen. Even then I thought, well, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Waters said. “But to me all extremity, they never have a sense of humor. As soon as they lose that, nobody’s right and they won’t listen. And as soon as you get up on any soapbox to preach to people, that’s how you lose. You don’t win that way. We have to pick our battles. They love how mad we get, so don’t react to them.”
And what does that mean for all of us?
“It means that we have to move on,” Waters said. “And that’s what my whole new show is about, the new revolution of young people that is even making me a middle-of-the-road militant. The whole new sexual revolution, I salute them, because it’s managed to make the right wing crazy, but it makes some of the left wing crazy, too. I guess I’m now in the middle for the first time ever. And that is, I think, the only new way to be radical at my age. I think it’s a new time. And I think that they have finally come up with a new way. It is a new revolution. And it’s incredibly widespread. I mean, I know from going to colleges and going to my summer camp, everyone’s trans now. It’s like in a year this happened. It’s kind of amazing.”
The summer camp he refers to is Camp John Waters, an adult camp in Kent, Conn., with the tagline Not All Cults Are Bad.
“Oh my, god, my summer camp’s seventh year,” he said. “We had two contests – Johnny Knoxville judging a non-binary bear contest and Elizabeth Coffey, who was the first trans ever, judging a flashing contest because that’s what she did in Pink Flamingos. Both the winners were trans men but we didn’t really know until they were naked. You don’t know now. You go home with somebody, it’s a whole new surprise. That’s the new radicalism, it really is. It’s a new world out there. If you don’t know what you’re gonna get, that makes it even more exciting. I guess.”
The day before we spoke, Waters had turned in the script for what he hopes to be his next movie, based on his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance (2022).
“My last book – my only novel – Liarmouth was optioned by a Hollywood studio to get me to write the script. I turned it in yesterday,” he said. “I can talk about it a little now because the [Writers Guild of America] strike is over. I had already written it before the strike.
“So that’s the first step. It goes through different steps, budget, casting, everything. So all those things, you know, there’s many green lights till you make a movie. I know that. I’ve had four other movies that I was paid to develop and the whole thing never happened. So you know, you never know what’s going to happen in Hollywood."
What would you like to see happen?
“I would like this movie to get made,” Waters said. “And then I have another one that has been through development. I’d like both of them to get made. I have many ways to tell stories. And I learned that a long time ago, that basically I’m a writer, that’s what I do. I can write a book or make a movie. I can do a spoken word. I have many ways to tell my stories and that’s a luxury. But that’s also good planning.”
At age 77, Waters finds himself much in demand.
“I have never been this busy in my entire life,” he said.
What does he attribute that to?
“Well, I’ve always been driven,” he said. “I think the reason I have lasted this long is because I make fun of things I love, not hate. That’s starting with myself.”
Waters said he is always happy to meet fans and answer their questions at the show.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “My fans are smart. They get dressed up. They get their roots done. And if they don’t get one joke, I do another one in 10 minutes, so I never worry if they will understand this because all my audience is smart. If they don’t get this joke so what, they’ll get the next one. I know I have great fans. I’ve been really lucky. They are the people that have let me get away with this my whole life.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years, I think I’m pretty well understood,” he continued. “And everybody knows exactly what they’re in for when they come to me, hopefully, although the other night in Nashville someone raised their hand and said they enjoyed the whole show. They said until that evening they had no idea who I was and had never seen any of my movies, and asked what I should I start with?”
He said Serial Mom.
“I think it’s the best movie I ever made. I think it predicted the true crime thing. I think Kathleen Turner is absolutely fabulous. I think we finally had $13 million – I had enough budget to make it look really good. And I think the script worked. I don’t know. I just think that’s the best one to start with, and I think it’s probably my best movie. My mother thought so, too.”
• • •
'In addition to presenting his one-man show at the West Theatre on Oct. 25 and 26, the West is offering a retrospective of his films, as well as a lookalike contest and drag show. Last week the West showed Paw Patrol – this week and next is a tribute to John Waters that includes
• Pink Flamingos, 1972
• Female Trouble, 1974
• Desperate Living, 1977
• Polyester, 1981
• Hairspray, 1988
• Cry-Baby, 1990
• Serial Mom, 1994
• Cecil B. Demented, 2000
Check thewesttheatre.com for days and times.