Filmmaker John Waters: Aiming high and low
The Film Society of Lincoln Center recently recognized John Waters. Now more “insider” than “outsider,” the cult filmmaker finds himself at a curious crossroads. He’s currently touring the country with his monologue, “This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier,” a 75-minute live show which covers the highs and lows of his career. We talked to him about his work and the state of indie cinema via phone.
Can call your current tour a performance?
Yes, it’s definitely a performance. And I’ve written a lot of new material.
The retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center is called “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” It turns out, the public can take a lot of Waters. Does that surprise you?
It was great. It was your life. It was like being at your funeral and getting to hear all the good parts. It’s very honorable and there was no irony. My mom, before she passed away, heard that I was having this retrospective. It was hilarious and exciting to see my early films showing for free. And they sold out. Every showing every day was sold out. One of them only played once 50 years ago and now it’s at Lincoln Center.
Has it surprised you, given that your films were so marginal?
They’re still marginal. Audiences are much more attuned to marginal stuff. I used to say that outsider was a dirty word and nobody wanted to be on the outside. Now, Obama wants to be an outsider. It’s a badge of honor. I’m proud to be an insider now. I always go against the grain of what everybody is thinking. I think it’s possible to be filthy and respectable.
You recently remarked that given your stable family life, you don’t know why you turned out so “weird.” Can you offer a few possible answers to that question?
I do know some of it. I’m the psychiatrist of my life of my own choosing. I believe there are all sorts of reasons for it. I also believe there is a map that you’re born with. Dr. Money, the great sexologist who was discredited by Oprah said we’re hard-wired with some things. That might be part of it. I was born six weeks early and I always joke that I overly baptized.
Did you know you were different?
Right from the beginning, I had no interest in what the other kids did. When I was in kindergarten, I used to come home from class and tell my mother about this weird kid who only drew with black crayon. And that was me. I was creating a character. I didn’t really care. I heard my parents discuss it — you know how you eavesdrop on your parents while you’re sitting on the top of the stairs — and they said, he’s just an odd duck. I said, Oh, that’s what I am. I’m not saying I didn’t get hassled. You need a little trouble when you’re growing up. It toughens you up a little bit. Bullying was a different story. The people who bullied me thought I was insane and that kept them away from me. I don’t know if you can tell your children to act insane because these days if you act insane, the police show up. You have to be careful. It’s a thin line you have to walk.
Talk about the ways in which you analyze gender in your films. What are you trying to say?
In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad doesn’t think her mother is a man. That is a secret that the audience and the author share. They don’t’ tell the characters. It’s not part of the plot. Divine doesn’t rip his wig off at the end and say, “I’m really a man.” It was a bit of humor to add and little bit of surrealism that worked. In real life Divine had no desire to be a woman. He didn’t walk around dressed like a woman. He dressed like a well-dressed man. I was fascinated by that article in the New Yorker about how radical feminists are against transgender women because they had the penis in the first place and they had the power to get the operation. I love these battles within the gay community. Transgender is fascinating to me. I make jokes about it. When it comes to the day that the gay community doesn’t have humor, I think we’re in trouble. I’m old school. I’m gayly incorrect too. I don’t like the rules of the gay world or the straight world. Technically, I am politically correct. I’m a radical feminist. I like Andrea Dworkin, the one who said that all heterosexual sex is rape. I love to read all that. I love the debate and the insanity of it.
Did that term “camp” exist when you started making movies?
Yeah, before Susan Sontag made it a household term it was an old-school gay term. Now only heteros used that word. It’s a word that’s very outdated. When I hear that word, I think of two elderly gentlemen from the ‘60s in an antique shop talking about Rita Hayworth films under Tiffany lampshades. That’s camp. I would never say something is campy. Camp has no edge. Then, it became kitsch in Europe. It’s like “bear” today. Finally, straight people are figuring out what bear means. It’s a huge movement. I heard a dolphin is a fat man who shaves. I had never heard that one. I like to keep up with the radical fracturization of the gay community.
Now you’re traveling with your “vaudeville act.” Talk about how the act started and how the performance has evolved.
I first did it 40 years ago when we would go to colleges and say, “Divine in person.” I would come out dressed as a hippie pimp with shirts with tarantulas or shrunken heads all over it and with hair that looked like bacon and my mustache would be smeared on my face. I would talk about nudist camps and things that no one praised at that time. I would say, “Here is the most beautiful woman in the world.” Divine would come out — much like act in Female Trouble — and throw fish at the audience and rip phone books in half. If we were in a big city or had more of a budget, we would hire some friends to impersonate policemen and they would rush the stage and pretend to arrest us. Divine would strangle the cops and the hippies would cheer and the show would begin. That was our vaudeville act. I always said I just needed a nude juggler with an erection. I still am doing that in a way. Divine and I used to go to a burlesque theater in Baltimore during the last days of burlesque. They did have baggy pants comedians telling dirty jokes. It influenced me very much, that burlesque world with strippers.
That’s what you’re trying to evoke?
No. My performance is completely written and rehearsed. I’m trying to evoke the highest acts that ever did it. Oscar Wilde was the most successful. Swimming to Cambodia. There are a lot of people who have spoken word acts. I aim high and low. Joan Rivers. I was just at her funeral. It was very sad, but she didn’t even know she died. She performed the night before. She died rich. The family will probably sue the hospital and she’ll be doubly rich. In a way, she never knew she died so I don’t know how tragic it was. She had a great life that she worked really hard for.
What happened to the world of independent cinema?
It’s dead. There is no such thing. They want me when I was making Polyester. That is what they want. Finally Hollywood is looking for that. They weren’t looking for that when I was making movies. Today, your films have to cost under a million or over a hundred million. Mine was 5 million. There is no such thing. That’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s an Edsel. There is no such thing as that.