John Waters, an author of Trash, would like to thank the Academy
BALTIMORE — John Waters led a delegation from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — for Los Angeles Week — on a tour of his 32-year-old home, cluttered with movie artifacts and kitsch curiosities and tucked behind trees in a quiet corner five miles from this town’s waterfront.
There was a lot to see: the electric chair from his 1974 black comedy, “Female Trouble” in the hallway. A birth certificate for Divine, the 300-pound transvestite who played the “dirtiest person alive” in ‘Pink Flamingos’, hangs in a basement room filled with memories. The mimeographed poster for the 1966 premiere of “Roman Candles” pulled from a stack of boxes.
“Pass me that leg of lamb,” Waters asked an aide as two curators and the museum director followed him up the narrow stairs, through a doorway and into his cramped two-room home office – one room for “my writing and thinking” and one for, as he put it, selling. He offered up for scrutiny a favorite artifact of his filmmaking career: the (rubber) leg of lamb that Kathleen Turner used as a murder weapon in a particularly gruesome scene in “Serial Mom.”
For decades, Waters was famous for pushing the boundaries of taste when there were real limits of taste (enforced by entities like his former tormentor, the Maryland State Board of Censors), including the notorious final scene of “Pink Flamingos”, which involves dog feces. William S. Burroughs called Waters “the trash pope,” and he meant that as a compliment.
Next summer, Waters, who is 76, is being honored by the establishment he has flamboyantly provoked for more than 50 years. It will be the subject of a sprawling 11,400 square foot exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the Hollywood-celebratory museum that opened last year. With this exhibit, the Academy is making it clear that its curatorial appetite goes beyond R2-D2 and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
It may not be easy. The Academy Museum has planted a flag as a family and tourist destination, which isn’t exactly John Waters’ fanbase. Regardless of the exhibit’s name — “Pope of Trash,” of course — Bill Kramer, the museum’s director, said a sign could be placed at the entrance to warn the young and the fussy.
“We don’t want to do anything that will alienate our audience,” Kramer said, pulling up a chair next to Waters in his living room. “We are currently going through the design process, and through this process, we will ensure that the exhibit is not watered down, but is also an exhibit that is accessible to all ages.”
“Which is a challenge,” Waters quipped.
“Which is a challenge,” agreed Kramer.
Waters has come a long way since 1973, when Variety described “Pink Flamingos” as “one of the most despicable, stupid and disgusting movies ever made.” Her next films – “Polyester“, with Tab Hunter; “Cry-Baby”, with Johnny Depp; and “Pecker,” starring Patricia Hearst, to name a few — have become cult favorites, some still drawing crowds at midnight screenings. “Hairspray,” his 1988 comedy, became a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards. Now Waters will join the ranks of Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Godfather,” as the subject of an exhibit at the Academy Museum.
“People will definitely see irony in that,” Waters said. “My movies, certainly at the beginning, didn’t have good reviews, were censored, but people were still coming. Just crazy people came.
“And did any of them become nicer?” Waters said of his films, warming to the subject. “No! They’ve all been accepted over the years, which just means that American humor has changed for the better. I think we got used to embracing all kinds of movies if they were extreme and had style .
If he’s right about that – and he very well could be – it should make life easier for curators as they spend the next year deciding which works to highlight, how much to present in gory, scatological or rated X, and how much to leave to viewers’ memories and imaginations.
Among the items they’re considering are barf bags, given protectively to members of the public for screenings of “Pink Flamingos.” The handheld camera Waters used in “Eat Your Makeup” to film the Kennedy assassination reenactment on her parents’ lawn, much to the horror of the neighbors, with Divine playing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A list of living insects, a German cockroach and a dragonfly nymph among them, which actor Johnny Knoxville was ready to put in his mouth for the 2004 film, ‘A Dirty Shame’.
And there’s the depiction of painted shoes by the glue-sniffing Baltimore walker while serving time in prison in “Polyester.” Scratch-and-sniff cards encrusted with stomach-turning odors that were given to “Polyester” patrons so they could experience the film with their noses, as well as their eyes. This leg of lamb.
But those kinds of decisions are months away. The exhibition is in the planning phase. Before arriving in Baltimore, the curators, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, spent months combing through the Waters Archive at Wesleyan University, with considerable success. “In ‘Hairspray,’ at the end, Debbie Harry wears this towering wig that has this explosive device,” Jaffe said. “We asked everyone and no one knew what had happened to him. Turns out it was at Wesleyan the whole time. We found it in a box in the corner.
“Dara and I started jumping up and down,” He said.
Here, in the city that defined Waters’ career and life, they walked through his house, itself a kind of museum, before heading to his studio and office to determine which of the 881 elements that made their preliminary list (“I’m a hoarder,” Waters said) is worth viewing.
“Jenny, we should measure this,” Jaffe said, pulling out a tape after spotting a fan-painted “Maryland State Board of Censors” seal sent to Waters in his office, a testament to when the board forced Waters to cut a scene from “Female Trouble”. Waters asked the censors to give him a receipt for the film clip which he cut from the reel and delivered.
When they arrived at his studio, the curators met with Waters to share an idea for the exhibit’s entrance.
“So we know you want people to be a little shocked when they first walk in,” Jaffe said, as Waters nodded. “And we know how much you love showmanship and gimmicks.” The idea, she says, would be to create the interior of a church, with a montage of Waters films scrolling past the altar. The benches – “cinema seats” – would be fitted with hidden buzzers to “give them a literal shock” when they sat down, she explained.
“Can you make it work? Waters exclaimed. “That would be great!”
This exhibit may feel like a golden retirement watch for Waters, a belated acknowledgment of his contribution to film and culture over the decades. It’s been 18 years since Waters made his last film – ‘A Dirty Shame,’ which was rated NC-17. But he’s since been paid to write three sequels to “Hairspray,” none of which ultimately received the green light from the studio. He also went on to develop a long-gestating Christmas children’s film called “Fruitcake”.
Waters is not retiring, however. He’s traveled the country promoting his debut novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022), and recently had a guest appearance on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s in a new ad campaign for a Calvin Klein fashion line for Pride Month. He still has the pencil mustache, which he’s been brushing up throughout the day.
Museum officials could barely follow him as he ascended and descended the steps of the four-story house, before jumping into a rental Cadillac (his own car is being driven by an assistant in Provincetown, where he will spend the summer) to lead a cavalcade on the way to his workshop and his office.
In truth, Waters is now part of the entertainment establishment. He is a member of the Academy, sponsored by filmmaker David Lynch, himself a bit of an envelope pusher. (“And I take my duties seriously,” he said of being an Oscar judge. “I watch everything.”) “Hairspray” was rated PG. And in another sure sign of success, Waters is surrounded by a coterie of assistants throughout his day. “I need three assistants to turn on a television,” he said.
Kramer, who this week was named chief executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, proposed the exhibit in March 2020. Waters agreed, and the curators left for a reconnaissance visit that month. Because of the pandemic, this was the first time Jaffa and He had returned to Baltimore. “I kept that secret for a long time,” Waters said.
The show will introduce Waters’ canon to an audience unfamiliar with his work, but the base will likely be his loyal supporters, those who went to see his films before they were legitimized at festivals and revival houses, and who attended Camp John Waters, his sold-out Adult Summer Camp in Kent, Conn.
“My audience was always humorous and they were always a bit angry, but they were still moviegoers, they had a sense of humor about themselves and they laughed at their own tastes in a way that they were embracing tastes that other people would be against,” Waters says. “My audience wasn’t just gay or straight; they were bikers, or they were all people who were out of place; even in their own minorities they had issues, and there was my target audience.
Waters has never lived in Los Angeles, but was a guest at the museum’s red carpet opening last year – co-starring with Cher and Lady Gaga. “I was just amazed – who would have ever thought all of these things would happen?” Waters asked. He waited a moment. “And the answer is – me.”