Who knew John Waters was playing it straight all along?!?
John Waters, America’s most beloved transgressive filmmaker and essayist, confessed the secret to his success at the Miami Book Fair last night, and it’s among the most shocking things in a 40-year career built on shock value: He doesn’t do irony.
What? No irony for the filmmaker William Burroughs called “the Pope of Trash?” I didn’t even know it was possible to do camp without being ironic. And no one has mainstreamed gay camp more effectively than John Waters.
“There is no irony in this book,” Waters told interviewer Bret Sokol, of Ocean Drive magazine, before a sold-out audience of 750 at Miami Dade College in downtown Miami. “There is no one in it who is so bad they are good. They are so good they are amazing.”
Waters was referring to his latest collection of essays, Role Models, which contains tributes to figures who have influenced him, both personally and professionally — from Tennessee Williams to Leslie Van Houten, Little Richard to Johnny Mathis, lesbian stripper Lady Zorro to high-brow British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnette.
But to clarify that he’s not just talking about the irony-free new book, Waters adds: “Even in my movies there is no meanness.”
And therein I think we may have the explanation as to how a provincial filmmaker whose first cheapy feature ended with a man eating apparently real dog poo has become a mainstream icon. It’s because there isn’t a mean bone in his match-stick body, nary a smirk behind that famous penci-thin mustache.
“I don’t think you should laugh at people,” says Waters.
Today Waters is best known for Hairspray, which has now had three separate incaranations: His original independent film, a hit
Broadway show, and a mainstream movie starring John Travolta in drag. But he broke into national consciousness in 1972 with Pink Flamingos, a masterpiece of tackiness and perversity set in Baltimore and starring his best friend, Divine, a 300-pound drag queen.
Actually, confided Waters, Divine (real name: Glenn Milstead) was not a drag queen but a “nerd” who did not dress as a woman in his private life. Instead, he was an actor who channeled his rage “to create this character and scare hippies.” Divine, he says, is “a combination of Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla.”
Waters’ early movies should have scared more than hippies — Middle America comes to mind — but by the time he started to reach most film goers, with mid-career pictures like Polyester, Cry-Baby (starring Johnny Depp) and Hairspray he had tempered the aggressive outrageousness with coherent plotlines and recognizable characters.
“My movies play on TV now,” Waters says, “which I never thought would happen when I made them.”
Waters even finds himself a role model today, and he embraces the responsibility, but it all started when he was a weird kid growing up in suburan Baltimore in the 1950. He overheard his mother tell his dad that their son was “just an odd duck.”
“I made a career out of it,” Waters says. “I knew what I wanted to be.” And what he wanted to be was a writer. At summer camp when he was 13, Waters wrote a gore-filled horror story which he read to the other children just before it was time to go home. Their parents called to complain.
Waters says he was saved from the stifling conformity of the ’50s by Tennessee Williams. At 12, he slipped behind the librarian’s desk to steal the restricted copy of One Arm, Williams’ collection of short stories dealing with homosexuality. “I didn’t even understand what I was reading,” he says. “But I knew I would eventually.”
Denying children access to any book they want, he says, is a mistake. “You can’t commit a crime while reading a book. If a kid comes in and wants Dennis Cooper, then give it to him. If he’s heard of Dennis Cooper then he deserves the book.”
Likewise: “When you see your kid acting out weird stuff, let them do it. Otherwise it will come out later in sex.”