John Waters

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John Samuel Waters, Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American filmmaker, actor, stand-up comedian, writer, journalist, visual artist, and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films. Waters' 1970s and early '80s trash films feature his regular troupe of actors known as the Dreamlanders—among them Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey. Starting with Desperate Living (1977), Waters began casting real-life convicted criminals (Liz Renay, Patricia Hearst) and infamous people (Traci Lords, a former porn star).

Waters skirted mainstream film making with Hairspray (1988), which introduced Ricki Lake and earned a modest gross of $8 million domestically. In 2002, Hairspray was adapted to a long-running Broadway musical, which itself was adapted to a hit musical film which earned more than $200 million worldwide. After the crossover success of the original film version of Hairspray, Waters's films began featuring familiar actors and celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Edward Furlong, Melanie Griffith, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Kathleen Turner, John Travolta, and Tracey Ullman.

Although he has apartments in New York City and San Francisco, as well as a summer home in Provincetown, Waters still mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where all his films are set. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil-thin mustache, a look he has retained since the early 1970s.

Early life

Waters was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker) and John Samuel Waters, who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment.[1] Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, later known as Divine, also lived in Lutherville.

The movie Lili inspired an interest in puppets in the seven-year-old Waters, who proceeded to stage violent versions of Punch and Judy for children's birthday parties. Biographer Robert L. Pela says that Waters's mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters's subsequent career (though Pela believes tacky films at a local drive-in, which the young Waters watched from a distance through binoculars, had a greater effect).[2]

Waters attended the Calvert School in Baltimore and Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson but he ultimately graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland. For his sixteenth birthday, Waters received an 8mm movie camera from his maternal grandmother, Stella Whitaker.


His first short film was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. According to Waters, the film was shown only once in a "beatnik coffee house" in Baltimore, although in later years he has included it in his traveling photography exhibit.

Waters enrolled at New York University (NYU). The school, however, was not what Waters had in mind:

NYU...I was there for about five minutes. I don't know what I was thinking about. I went to one class and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn't what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see Olga's House of Shame. That was what I was more into.

Extremely influential to his creative mind, Waters tells Robert K. Elder in an interview for The Film That Changed My Life, was The Wizard of Oz.

I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.[3]

Waters has further credited his influences as, among others, Russ Meyer,Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Federico Fellini, William Castle and Ingmar Bergman. He has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films: "I love Bergman and I Dismember Mama".[citation needed]

In January 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the grounds of NYU; he was soon kicked out of his NYU dormitory. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed his next two short films Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup.[1] These were followed by the feature-length films Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs.

Waters's films would become Divine's primary star vehicles. All of Waters's early films were shot in the Baltimore area with his company of local actors, the Dreamlanders. In addition to Divine, the group included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Walsh, and others. These early films were among the first picked up for distribution by the fledgling New Line Cinema. Waters's films premiered at Baltimore's Senator Theatre and sometimes at the Charles Theatre.

Waters's early campy movies present filthily lovable characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogue. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, which he labeled the Trash Trilogy, pushed hard at the boundaries of conventional propriety and movie censorship. A particularly notorious scene from Pink Flamingos, added as a non sequitur to the film's end, featured—in one continuous take without special effects—a small dog defecating and Divine eating its feces.

Move towards the mainstream

Waters in New York City.

Waters's 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter. Since then, his films have become less controversial and more mainstream, although works such as Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented still retain his trademark inventiveness. The film Hairspray was turned into a hit Broadway musical which swept the 2003 Tony Awards, and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007 to positive reviews and commercial success. Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.

In 2004, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame marked a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the 1970s. He had a cameo in Jackass: Number Two, which starred Dirty Shame co-star Johnny Knoxville, and another small role as paparazzo Pete Peters in 2004's Seed of Chucky.

In 2007, he became the host ("The Groom Reaper") of 'Til Death Do Us Part, a program on America's Court TV network featuring dramatizations of marriages that soured and ended in murder.

In 2008, Waters was planning to make a children's Christmas film called Fruitcake[4] starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey.[5] Filming was planned for November 2008,[6] but it was shelved in January 2009.[7] In 2010, Waters told the Chicago Tribune that "Independent films that cost $5 million are very hard to get made. I sold the idea, got a development deal, got paid a great salary to write it — and now the company is no longer around, which is the case with many independent film companies these days."[8]

Waters has been known to create characters with alliterated names for his films including Corny Collins, Donald and Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Rickettes, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.

Puffing constantly on a cigarette, Waters appeared in a short film shown in film art houses announcing that "no smoking" is permitted in the theaters. This short spot was filmed by Waters for the Nuart Theatre (a Landmark Theater) in West Los Angeles, California, in appreciation to the theater for showing Pink Flamingos for many years. It is shown immediately before any of his films, and before the midnight movie showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

He played a minister in Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, which was directed by one of his idols, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and is a sequel to one of his favorite exploitation films.

Waters is also a board member of Maryland Film Festival, and has selected and hosted one favorite feature film within each Maryland Film Festival since its launch in 1999. Waters' picks have ranged from Joseph Losey's Boom! to Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone.

Work in progress

Saying, "My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?", Waters recently completed a hitchhiking journey across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco and plans to turn his adventures into a book, tentatively entitled, "Carsick".[11] On May 15, 2012, Waters was picked up by 20-year-old Myersville, Maryland Councilman Brett Bidle, who thought Waters was a homeless hitchhiker standing in the pouring rain. Feeling bad for Waters, he agreed to drive him four hours to Ohio.[12]

The next day, Indie rock band Here We Go Magic tweeted that they had picked John Waters up hitchhiking in Ohio. He was wearing a hat that says, "Scum of the Earth".[13] In Denver, Colorado, Waters reconnected with Bidle, who drove him another 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to Reno, Nevada. Before parting ways, Waters arranged for Bidle to stay at his San Francisco apartment. "I thought, you know what, he wanted an adventure, too," said Waters. "He's the first Republican I'd ever vote for."[11]

Bidle later said, "We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that’s what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time. I think that’s what America’s all about."[11] [edit] Personal life

In 2009, he advocated the parole of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. He devotes a chapter to Van Houten in his book Role Models published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May 2010.[14][15][16]

An openly gay man, Waters is also an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.[17]

Waters was a great fan of the music of Little Richard when growing up, claiming that ever since shoplifting a copy of his song "Lucille" in 1957, "I've wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard's body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities." In 1987, Playboy magazine employed Waters to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well, with Waters later remarking that "it turned into kind of a disaster."[18]


  • 1. ^ a b John Waters Biography (1946–)
  • 2. ^ Pela, Robert L (2002). Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters. Alyson Publishing.
  • 3. ^ Waters, John. Interview by Robert K. Elder. The Film That Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011. N. p281. Print.
  • 4. ^ Interview
  • 5. ^ Guarino, David R (2008-05-22). "Yuletide Indigestion: John Waters Makes Fruitcake". Gay Chicago magazine: pp. 56–61.
  • 6. ^ Stewart, Sara (15 June 2008). "John Waters. The director comes to New York for his one-man show, and savors another big night at the Tonys". New York Post. [1].
  • 7. ^ "Waters' Kids Movie Scrapped". Contactmusic. 16 January 2009. [2]
  • 8. ^ Metz, Nina (3 December 2010). "John Waters loves Christmas. Really.". Chicago Tribune. [3]
  • 9. ^ C. Grimaldis Gallery. "John Waters." Web. 26 Apr. 2012. [4].
  • 10. ^ Levi, Lawrence. "Inside Man." Modern Painters, September 2009.
  • 11. ^ a b c Itzkoff, Dave (25 May 2012). "John Waters Tries Some Desperate Living on a Cross-Country Hitchhiking Odyssey". The New York Times. [5]
  • 12. ^ Wilson, Ike (24 May 2012). "A hitchhiker’s guide ...: Myersville man gives filmmaker John Waters a ride". [6]
  • 13. ^ Rosen, Jill (18 May 2012). "Baltimore Insider". The Baltimore Sun. [7]
  • 14. ^ Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship 2009-08-03
  • 15. ^ John Waters gets serious: Usually droll director sets aside the sarcasm as he writes about his friendship with Manson family member Leslie Van Houten 2009-08-07
  • 16. ^ John Waters Argues For Murderer's Release 2009-08-10
  • 17. ^ Dreamland News: Fans
  • 18. ^ Waters, John (28 November 2010). "When John Waters met Little Richard". The Guardian. [8]
  • 19. ^ "Pope of trash and princess of pop". Q&A. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 24 October 2011. [9]
  • 20. ^ "Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008)". [10]

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