John Waters, dubbed “The Sultan of Sleaze,” The Baron of Bad Taste,” and, his favorite, “The Pope of Trash” is an anti-establishment filmmaker, writer, and artist of in the genre of film called “white trash,” “camp,” or simply “trash.”
Waters was born in 1946 in Baltimore, Maryland to middle class Catholic parents. Waters was a huge consumer of pop-culture as a child. His youth gave him an incredibly varied group of influences, including Herschell Gordon Lewis, the creator of low-budget gore movies, Kenneth Anger, the creator of homoerotic comic books, Andy Warhol, the superstar pop artist, and George and Mike Kuchar, the creators of high-color melodramas.
In 1968, at the age of 22, Waters made his first 16-mm film called ‘Eat your Makeup,’ which told the story of a governess and her lover who kidnap models and force them to model to death. This early film, along with “Hag” and “Roman Candles,” were never distributed and are rarely shown.
In these early films, Waters began employing his repertory company called the Dreamlanders, named after his film production company, Dreamland Films. The company included Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, and, his favorite actor and perennial lead, the overweight drag persona, Harris Glenn Milstead, whose drag name was “Divine.” Waters, who wrote and directed all of his films, wrote parts specifically for this company.
Waters’ says there are never ironic or satirical elements in his film. His films all include nuanced and well-versed messages in the themes of gay culture, drag aesthetics, and Baltimore society, because Waters knows and loves all of these things in his own life. When asked about his aesthetic Waters’ says “secretly I think that all my films are politically correct, though they appear not to be. That’s because they’re made with a sense of joy.”
In 1972, Waters began what would later be dubbed his “Trash Trilogy” with his arguably most controversial film, Pink Flamingos.
Pink Flamingos tells the story of Divine (played by Divine), who adopts the name Babs Johnson, her son-lover Crackers, and her “retarded” egg-obsessed mother (played by Massey). A middle-class couple Raymond and Connie Marble (played by David Lochary and Mink Stole) and Babs compete for the title of the “filthiest person alive.” Raymond and Connie sell drugs to school children and force their gay butler (Channing Wilroy) to inseminate young white girls to have babies to sell to wealthy lesbian couples. Despite these advantages, Babs still wins the “filth war” when she eats dog excrement and kills Connie and Raymond in front of a group of reporters.
Critics divide Waters’ films into the early and later periods. His early films are passionate, occasionally blasphemous, and certainly controversial. His later films are more mainstream with bigger budgets and bigger stars, but still employ many of the same techniques and themes as in his earlier films.
Waters was less obsessed with shocking audiences in his later films partially because he realized after the huge shocks of Desperate Living, he couldn’t do much more. Still, he used many of his controversial themes in his later films including crime, variations of gender, sexual perversion, and waste exploitation.
In the 1981 film Polyester, viewers were given scratch and sniff cards with their tickets to let them experience the movie with three senses, harkening back to similar ideas in earlier cinema. Polyester explores the theme of a loss of innocence and happiness in the ideal suburban dream by detailing the life of Francine Fishpaw, a Baltimore housewife abandoned by her husband and despised by her children who turns to alcohol as an escape.
Hairspray (1988) was Waters’ most mainstream movie, and later was made into both a Broadway musical and a big-budget Hollywood film. Waters based the movie on a popular Baltimore TV show of his childhood called “The Buddy Deane Show.” Hairspray is a less controversial, more light-hearted film, which includes the camp of his earlier films, without the trash. Despite Waters’ claim that his work has “no socially redeeming value,” Hairspray depicts racial tensions in 1960s Baltimore and the fight for integration.
Serial Mom (1990) was also a mainstream hit, starring the famous Kathleen Turner, who plays suburban housewife serial killer whose story is made into a Hollywood film.
Waters shot and still shoots all of his films in his hometown of Baltimore. Starting as subversive, fringe young filmmaker, Waters’ later films have turned him into a local hero. In 1985, the city which Waters lovingly dubbed “Trashtown, USA, the Sleaziest City on Earth, the Hairdo Capital of the World,” named February 7th John Waters day.
Waters is currently the Professor of Film and Subculture at The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He still lives in Baltimore.