Friday, April 6, 2012

The King of Trashy Movies (Totally NSFW)

With the MCCC/JTMF production of Hairspray set to open in just a week, I thought I'd talk about the demented genius behind the original story, filmmaker John Waters.

Waters grew up in Baltimore in the 1950's, obsessed with horror movies, violence and gore. Thankfully, he channeled those obsessions into his own films, rather becoming a serial killer. 

His first full-length 16mm film, 1968's Eat Your Makeup, was about an insane nanny who kidnapped young models and forced them to model themselves to death (whatever that means). It starred Waters' dear friend Harris Glen Milstead (better known as 'Divine') as Jacqueline Kennedy(!) and was only screened once, in a church basement Waters rented out for the screening. His first commercially screened film, 1969's Mondo Trasho, starred long-time collaborators Mary Vivian Pearce; Divine and Mink Stole. It was a day in the life of a hit-and-run driver and her victim.

Next came 1970's Multiple Maniacs, about a traveling sideshow that was actually a front for a band of psychotic killers. It is infamous for the scene in which Divine has sex with a giant lobster:

In 1972, Waters released his most infamous film (the first Waters film I ever saw, ten years later), Pink Flamingos. Babs Johnson (Divine) has earned a tabloid's title as the "Filthiest Person Alive." When the title is challenged by Connie and Raymond Marbles, Babs and her family set out to prove they are filthier. I won't subject you to the infamous 'dog poop' scene, but here's one where Babs and her son Crackers (Danny Mills), break into the Marbles' home and lick everything they can to defile it. The scene culminates in Babs fellating Crackers on the sofa (though the clip below ends before that happens). Pink Flamingos also features Edith Massey as Babs' mother, who is obsessed by the Egg Man (as referenced on Cyndi Lauper's debut album, 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun').

Flamingos was followed by Female Trouble in 1974 and probably Waters' most insane film, Desperate Living in 1977. In Desperate Living, Peggy Gravel (Stole) and her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) murder Peggy's husband and go on the lam, ending up in a cardboard kingdom atop a garbage dump, called Mortville. Mortville is ruled by Queen Carlotta (Massey) and her daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Pearce). It features lesbian glory-holes, FtM transgenderism and cannibalism, among other things. It may well have been partially inspired by Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.

In 1981, Waters got 1960's heartthrob Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees) to appear as Divine's lover in the first movie to be filmed in Odorama ("Smelling is Believing!"), Polyester.  Patrons were given a scratch and sniff card and instructed to smell-by-number. The odors included fish, feet, flowers, glue and pizza. Divine played the improbably named Francine Fishpaw:

Seven years later, Waters made his first "mainstream" hit, Hairspray. It starred Divine; Sonny Bono; Jerry Stiller; Debbie Harry; Pia Zadora; Ric Ocasek and future talk-show hostess Ricki Lake in a Baltimore fairy tale about a chubby high-school girl who manages to break both weight and race barriers on a TV dance show. It would go on to inspire both the musical in which I am currently appearing and the musical movie which starred John Travolta in the same role as Divine, Harvey Fierstein and Uncle P. Divine also appeared as Arvin Hodgepile, the man who owned the TV station which aired "The Corny Collins Show."

Waters followed Hairspray with Cry-Baby in 1990. Starring and up-and-coming Johnny Depp, Cry-Baby was Waters' "Romeo and Juliet," in which a boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls for a debutante. New Jersey's own Amy Locane co-starred along with Susan Tyrell; Polly Bergen; Iggy Pop; Ricki Lake; porn legend Traci Lords; Willem Dafoe; Patricia Hearst; Warhol discovery Joe Dellesandro and 50's icon Troy Donahue in the semi-musical parody. This is my favorite number:

The team behind the musical version of Hairspray tried (unsuccessfully) to strike gold again with a stage version of Cry-Baby in 2008.

Waters followed up next with 1994's Serial Mom, starring Kathleen Turner; "Law and Order" star Sam Waterston; Matthew Lillard, Lake; Lords and Stole. Beverly Sutphin appears to be the perfect suburban mother, even though she kills anyone who stands in the way of her family's success. Serial Mom may well be my personal favorite Waters film:

Now that's a movie I can see adapted into a Broadway musical!

Sadly, Waters seems to have lost his edge in his most recent recent films.1998's Pecker is amusing at best, while 2000's Cecil B. Demented lacks the true outsider feel of his earlier films. And 2004's A Dirty Shame is just plain bad. Of course, that simply may be the result of America's desensitization to shocking material. Sex and violence are so commonplace in today's media, Waters' brand of filmmaking may well end up being relegated among the films of Warhol, Corman and Coppola as products of the '70's  Independent Film boom. 

These days, Waters divides his time between his beloved Baltimore, San Francisco, New York and Provincetown, MA. His trademark pencil mustache made an appearance as the Flasher in the musical film adaptation of Hairspray and will next be seen in the horror film, Excision. His 2006 one-man show This Filthy World, is available on DVD.
More, anon.

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