John Waters has a refined taste for the tasteless
and his longtime star Divine
Movie director John Waters
are enduring a photo session
at an offbeat New York toy
store called Little Rickie.
Around them teems a crush of kitsch rang-
ing from bulgy toy cars to Mexican "day of
the dead" skeleton figures to Elvis gift-
wrapping paper. The photographers snap
away and try to get the duo to exude. Yet, in
the midst of this cornucopia of time-warp
trash, the celebrities seem . . . well, bored.
They've been here before. Not this partic-
ular store, but in the realm of the weird-
and beyond. The rail-thin Waters lights
up another Kool Light and chats lazily
with Divine. The 300-pound transvestite
actor is dressed in his own gender today:
a somber black-jacket-black-shirt-black-
slacks ensemble, looking like a cross be-
tween Uncle Fester and a Stealth bomber.
You have to be weirder than Little Rickie
to impress John Waters, who has made a
string of memorably disgusting films. No
one else has so thoroughly pushed the lim-
its of tastelessness. His "Pink Flamingos"
(1972) is famous for a scene in which Divine
puts poodle feces in his mouth. While most
of us have a mental filter between our
brains and our mouths that represses the
tasteless things we really think, Waters
has an amplifier. Once widely reviled-the
showbiz newspaper Variety called "Pink
Flamingos" "one of the most vile, stupid
and repulsive films ever made"-Waters is
now recognized as an original director
whose films, while sometimes terrible, are
often funny and always provocative. His
11th film, "Hairspray," will open soon at a
theater near you.
With infamy has come a degree of re-
spect: William Burroughs called Waters
the "pope of trash." Waters glorifies, even
idolizes, the tacky. On film, he creates a
special world in which his strange sensibil-
ities run wild. Off-screen, he's managed to
exploit these attitudes even further, in a
nonfictional way, through two books and a
nightclub / lecture-circuit act. Even if he's
not a mainstream success at all this, Wa-
ters has steadily built from an initial cult
following and achieved some unbelievable
honors. Last year the mayor of his home-
town, Baltimore, declared Feb. 7 to be
"John Waters Day."
Waters grew up in a suburb of Baltimore,
and his upbringing was fairly sedate-ex-
cept maybe for the time the Christmas tree
fell over, pinning his grandmother under
it. He was raised by well-to-do Roman Cath-
olic, Republican parents who have always
been supportive, if somewhat bewildered.
"If I wasn't their son," he admits, "they
wouldn't choose one of my movies to go
see." From childhood on, he immersed
himself in films, rating each one he saw in
a notebook. (He now has more than 1,500
entries.) Waters believes he was influ-
enced by both "the arty stuff and the real
trash." Thus, Woody Allen's very serious
"Interiors" and "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"
get the same four-star rating in Waters's
Kicked out of the New York University
film school for smoking marijuana in 1964,
he began filming ultra-low-budget movies
with titles like "Cavalcade of Perversion"
and "Multiple Maniacs" around Balti-
more and on his parents' front lawn.
While "Pink Flamingos" was his break-
through to a larger audience, "Polyester"
(1981), a more commercial film featuring
Tab Hunter, moved Waters out of the mid-
night-movie ghetto. It featured an inspired
gimmick: "Odoraina" cards with 10 assort-
ed smells to enhance the moviegoing expe-.
rience through the miracle of scratch-and-
(shudder) sniff. Smells ranged from pizza to
sneakers to, um, well . .. a fart. "Polyester"
made more than $2 million. Waters de-
scribes his screen work as "lowbrow movies
for highbrow theaters."
In his newest film, "Hairspray," the
Rimbaud of Baltimore goes back to his