Until recently, with respect to Academy recognition, Hollywood filth king John Waters was batting zero. But the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is poised to correct that with a career-spanning exhibition at the Academy Museum. Set to open to the public on Sept. 17 — with screenings scheduled through October of still shocking underground classics like 1972’s Pink Flamingos as well as more wholesome fare like 1988’s Hairspray — John Waters: Pope of Trash promises to both celebrate and canonize Waters as one of Hollywood’s most deliriously brilliant outsider voices.
To add to the excitement, Waters, 77, will receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 18. The iconoclast caught up with The Hollywood Reporter for a rollicking conversation about his delinquent youth (he was expelled from NYU for smoking pot), his unique friendships with larger-than-life stars Divine and Edith Massey and his thoughts about being immortalized on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard — in other words, the ultimate Waters fantasy.
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Hi, John. How are you?
I’m well. I’m in San Francisco where there’s a heat wave, which is so bizarre for August. Who was it that said, “I never talk about the weather unless it stops me”? I thought that was a funny line. Gore Vidal said, “No one has ever asked me about the weather. I’m too smart.” Really made me laugh, too. Those are my two favorite weather quotes.
How’s San Francisco these days? You hear so many rumors about what’s going on up there.
Did you see Beau Is Afraid? No — it’s not that. Let’s just say it is an incredibly beautiful city. I have an apartment here, so I live here. I spent my wild youth here. It’s a great movie town. It’s still an incredibly beautiful city that is going through some definite Mortville changes.
But I could imagine you liking those changes, in a way. Less tech, more trash.
Well, not really. The only thing comforting about Baltimore is that everywhere is like Baltimore now.
Well, congratulations. I mean, this is so incredible that the Academy Museum is doing this retrospective. Did it surprise you when they asked you?
Of course it did, but I was flattered. I don’t feel any kind of “Ha ha — I told you so.” I just think it’s amazing and just an example for any kid that starts out being obsessed by doing something that everybody tells them they can’t do. But eventually, if you just have a sense of humor about yourself, you’ll survive and people will grow to respect what you’ve done. You mustn’t brag about yourself. You have to laugh at yourself first if you’re in show business, and I think that gets you a long way.
And this stuff that we’re going to see in the exhibit, this is material that you have meticulously maintained in archives?
Well, it’s from everywhere. I mean, the curators, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, have gone all over the world. It’s like a snipe hunt. They found neighbors of where we made Polyester that I had no idea were still holding on to props from it. They went to my film archive at Wesleyan University that I’ve had for a long, long time. I don’t even know what’s in there because I started giving them stuff in the mid-’80s. So I’ve never really gone back and looked, except when I was writing my last book, Mr. Know-It-All. I went back for press stuff to remember box office grosses and letters, to just remember what happened. But no, I haven’t even seen the whole show myself. I’ve seen the catalog, which is beautiful. It has really wonderful essays in it. I don’t know — I’m going to be surprised myself. I don’t see it till the day before it opens.
I hear it opens with a church.
I’ve heard that. Well, God bless William Burroughs for calling me “the Pope of Trash.”
Did religion play a big factor in your own life growing up?
Well, they get it wrong sometimes. My mother was Catholic and my father wasn’t, which in the 1950s was called a mixed marriage. And that was tough. I am a tragic example of all kinds of education. I went to a very good private grade school, a public junior high and a terrible Catholic high school. And then I went to a college anybody could get into, and then I got into NYU and got thrown out for the first pot bust at a college campus. But things change. I got my dearest friend’s child help getting her into NYU by writing a letter this year to them saying, “Don’t worry, she’ll be a better student than I was.”
What was your crime, exactly?
Pot. There was even a book by Richard Goldstein called 1 in 7: Drugs on Campus. I’m in there in a chapter called “Pot on the Asphalt Campus.” It wasn’t NYU’s fault, really. I never went to class. I went to 42nd Street and saw the movies I wanted to see every day. And so then I got thrown out, and they said I needed extensive psychiatric treatment. And then I came home and made Roman Candles [in 1966] after I’d already made Hag in a Black Leather Jacket [in 1964]. So I knew what I wanted to do. You don’t have to go to school if you know what you want to do. You go to school when you don’t know. And they wouldn’t let me be what I wanted to be: the filthiest person alive. Today they might, if you went to a rich-kid school.
They offer entire degrees in it.
Oh, you could make a snuff movie and get into Harvard.
That leads me to a question. When I was younger, I remember Pink Flamingos was always in midnight showings at the local repertory. But you don’t really see it playing in theaters anymore. Are kids too sensitive these days for a film like that? Is Gen Z too prude for John Waters?
It doesn’t have to [play revival houses]. Pink Flamingos was just on Turner Classic Movies. Can you believe that? And my favorite thing, the little blurb said, “Fat woman lives in trailer.” I love that! That is the best blurb I have ever gotten in my life. Let’s just get to the square root of this movie.
Why does it have to be shown at midnight now? It’s on television, which is amazing to me. They had the singing asshole on Turner Classics. I’m trying to picture families channel surfing. “What’s that, Dad?” “Oh, nothing. Art. It’s art, honey.” Academy-approved art!
Exactly. In a few short weeks, Academy Museum visitors will be able to cross the Barbra Streisand Bridge to see the singing asshole from Pink Flamingos.
One thing I love about your films is your casting and how you have a certain appreciation for the underdogs of the world.
That’s also due to Pat Moran who has been my casting person for always, and she’s won a couple Emmys for The Wire and Homicide and all. I invented stunt casting a little bit in Cry-Baby, but I never did that again. I tried to have every crazy part in it played by a star from a different era. They were all good in it. I never had anybody in it I didn’t think was good. I thought Pia Zadora was great in Hairspray. I hired probably like Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith and Sam Waterston — people that were known as playing in real Hollywood movies — and asked them to do mine without ever winking at the audience. That’s why if ever I succeed at making funny movies, it’s because my direction is: “Say this as if you believe every word of it.”
One of my personal favorites is Kim McGuire as Hatchet-Face from Cry-Baby.
Oh yeah. She was great. And that was Van Smith’s genius, the guy that did the makeup for all my movies, because she had an interesting face, but nothing like that. It was a good start — but he distorted it. He distorted it so much. And now when I go to signings and all, somebody always shows up as Hatchet-Face. It’s a look. We never said the word “ugly.” We never said the word “unattractive.” I don’t believe in that. I believe that you should exaggerate what people are against and turn it into a style — and then it’s beauty and you win.
So McGuire [who died in 2016] enjoyed being known as Hatchet-Face?
Oh, are you kidding? She was in David Lynch’s next project [1992’s On the Air, an ABC sitcom that ran just seven episodes]. He hired her afterwards. She was a good sport about it, that’s all. She didn’t look like that in real life. She looked strange in real life, but certainly not like that. And she didn’t go around wearing Hatchet-Face makeup in real life. She was playing a character. She was mentally healthy enough not to adopt it in her personal life.
What can you tell us about Edith Massey?
She was an outsider comedian. I don’t know that there’s many. She was my Gracie Allen — and nobody that reads Hollywood Reporter is old enough to remember her. But audiences loved her. She was an outsider actress. She didn’t get it, but she liked being in a movie. She had a hard time memorizing her lines, but she loved being a movie star. She ran a thrift shop. So it was just like a fan club. People came in and gave her stuff to sell every day, and audiences really liked her. Even Andy Warhol, when he met her said, “Where in the hell did you find her?”
She’s one of your superstars.
She was my outsider actress. And she was a character actress. That’s what she was. Yeah.
I’d love to know a bit about your friendship with Divine and how you became friends back in the 1960s.
I grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, and Divine’s family moved up the street from mine, maybe six houses away. They had a child’s nursery school. And Divine was their only child, which I always thought was questionable advertising. And he was in high school, but he got beat up. He got hassled. He was an overweight, kind of feminine nerd. And the rage he built up from being abused so much by the students and the teachers led to Divine — a character that he was not like at all. But then I created and wrote the lines for him and made up this image that was made to scare hippies, basically.
And Divine wasn’t trans. He didn’t want to be a woman. He wanted to be Godzilla and Elizabeth Taylor put together. He never walked around in drag or anything. He never did that. He wasn’t trans. I mean, he’d be for that movement, but he wore expensive men’s suits and all, and that’s what he was striving for. I always have said that RuPaul — who has been around as long as we have and I really salute him for making drag totally acceptable by the middle class — but one of the reasons for RuPaul’s success that nobody ever mentions is he also had a great look out of drag. And most drag queens do not concentrate on that.
Interesting. So it’s kind of like doubling your money. You get two looks for one.
Because a lot of drag queens don’t even want to be photographed out of drag.
It’s nice to hear you tip your hat to someone like RuPaul. I was watching an old video of yours recently, where you were giving a tour of your apartment in Baltimore.
God, which one? The most ludicrous one is Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I did that at the height of my lunacy and they did it for real. And I had Pat Moran come over in an evening gown and a tiara to borrow a cup of sugar. And my assistant answers the phone and says, “Line 2: Mother Teresa.” And they ran it completely with [host Robin Leach’s] voice in it and everything. They were really good sports about that. But I know the different tours of my house. I don’t do them anymore. My mother always told me it’s bad taste. You only let people see your house when you’re about to sell it.
But your appreciation of the odd ephemera you had collected and the way you send out Christmas cards every year and just your zest for the silliness of life reminded me of Paul Reubens, who did a lot of the same things.
I knew Paul, certainly, and I have a dinner party every year with [photographer] Greg Gorman in L.A. I had it last week and Paul was supposed to be there. He was there every year. [His recent death is] very sad. And he was right up there with Howdy Doody and Lassie in the history of American television, if you ask me. A great gentleman who celebrated the delightful.
I’m just so appreciative that we have you. You are such a treasure. I don’t know how to fully relay that to you, but I’m sure you hear it a lot.
Thank you. It’s very nice. I never get tired of it.
Because you were such an advocate for her release, now that [former Manson Family member] Leslie Van Houten is free, have you spoken to her and how is she doing?
I will never comment on that again, because that’s for her lawyer to do. She’s out. It’s over. You’ll never hear from that person again.
I loved your 2022 book Liarmouth. I thought it was so funny. And then I was so thrilled to hear you’re making a movie out of it.
But I can’t talk about it. It’s the Writers Guild strike.
The book is about a pair of luggage thieves. I wonder if you have heard of Sam Brinton, the Department of Energy official caught stealing suitcases from airport baggage carousels?
Oh, yeah. I saw pictures of him. I think he read the book.
That’s what I think, too!
And I got way more random checks at airports after the book came out, too. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. Maybe it’s my paranoia.
Brinton looks like a character straight out of one of your movies.
Well, if you’re going to steal suitcases, I wouldn’t go in bad drag. Get a stylist at least.
Finally, this amazing season of John Waters appreciation also includes you getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The unveiling ceremony is Monday, Sept. 18. What would you want your fans to leave on your star?
I’d just like to have the lowest person that comes to Hollywood — that’s ugly and wants to be a movie star or untalented and wants to be a director — and have them walk over my star and feel a little bit of hope. That’s what it’s for.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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