I first became aware of John Waters around the time that the movie "Hairspray" premiered. I'd just started my first serious job out of college and was in the habit of watching Good Morning America while getting ready for work. One morning, prim little Joan Lunden was interviewing John Waters and Divine. I had no idea who they were at the time. They both looked perfectly respectable in their suits and ties. Neither had I recalled hearing anything about a movie called "Hairspray." I didn't take much notice of the program, focusing instead on my bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch.
Then I heard Joan ask them, "Hairspray is rated PG, but you two are better known for making trashy, x-rated cult films. What's that all about?" I didn't even listen to John Waters' response. I was stuck on "trashy, x-rated cult films." At the time I had no specific affinity for filth, but I'd always had a keen interest in the outrageous. It was something I wanted to cultivate within myself. About the only cult film I'd ever seen was Rocky Horror. I needed to expand my horizons.
I ran right out and saw "Hairspray." I absolutely adored it. I wasn't sure what to expect from a G-rated film made by masters of trash, but I was not disappointed. It was one of those very rare cinematic experiences where I wouldn't change one single thing about the whole production. That almost never happens for me. Even movies that I really like always have at least a few minor details that bug me. Not this time. I really loved how the Tracy character was happy with her size, and secure enough in her own skin to flout societal norms, and how that became a central issue to the story. I was also very impressed by the way Waters used the light-hearted setting of teen dance culture as a backdrop for the weighty issues of 1960's racial segregation. He struck a perfect balance between the frivolous and the serious, which is a very precarious balancing act and is extremely difficult to pull off successfully. To this day I love that movie, and laud it as a near-perfect exercise in movie making.
Now I was on a mission to see his other films. I didn't even know the names of any of them, let alone if I'd be able to find them on video tape. I went to a big music/video chain store and asked the girl behind the video counter to give me a price list of all titles with John Waters as director. I figured she could punch it up and give me a hard copy, but she started writing them down by hand, as if off the top of her head.
"You know them all by heart?" I asked.
"Well," she said as she pulled out a video guide, "not all of them."
I was surprised that this clean-cut nice-looking young woman was up on all these trash cult films. I told her about how I was new to the scene and couldn't wait to see all these movies. It turned out that they could order most of these videos, but that the prices were really high. She whispered in my ear that there was a small independent video store just up the road that had a Cult Films rack, and that most if not all of these titles should be there. I was impressed that she actually referred me to a competitor.
I made my way up to the video store she mentioned, and was delighted to find their Cult Films rack. There was a wealth of material there for me to discover and explore. But I stayed on mission and focused only on the John Waters tapes. The first one I rented was "Pink Flamingos." The little old lady behind the counter was all smiles until she saw the title of the video I was renting. Her eyes bulged a little bit as she looked at me. "This is a *strange* movie," she said as she shook her head.
I ran right home and watched it. Overall I liked it, but it was difficult to be objective. I had created such bizarre and zany expectations in my mind, it would be difficult for anything to live up to them. I was pretty much prepared for the weak acting and low production values. This was not a surprise to me, and it did not detract from the experience. And it was visually striking. The characters and the settings were fantastic. But as far as the action and the story went, I thought that a feud of filth between two small clans wasn't all that far out there.
But having said that, the movie was pretty fucking outrageous. I especially loved Edith Massey in the playpen eating all the eggs, the Eggman who was in love with her, the kidnapped pregnant hitchhikers in the basement and how Raymond & Connie sold their babies to lesbian couples, the son with the chicken fetish, and of course the outrageous birthday party guests. What really struck me was how everyone seemed to treat all that stuff as normal. It was like they were in their own world that had different norms and rules than the mundane world we all live in.
After seeing the classic "Pink Flamingos" I decided to go in chronological order. I saw "Mondo Trasho" and "Multiple Maniacs." Between the two I liked "Mondo Trasho" less simply because there was no dialog and it got kind of boring after a while. But I also thought that both had very meandering plots that didn't really keep my attention.
Then I saw "Female Trouble." Now that was a movie! Like "Pink Flamingos" it had a linear plot, but in this case it was a much more involved and outrageous one. I would almost say it was epic in scale, following the life and times of Dawn Davenport. Where "Pink Flamingos" was just a sort of back-and-forth between Divine and the Marbles, "Female Trouble" flowed more from event to event as things developed and unfolded. And talk about trashy! I couldn't believe some of the things they were doing. Overall I liked "Female Trouble" very much.
Next came "Desperate Living." As far as I was concerned it was another home run for Waters. The story, while not as epic in scope as "Female Trouble," was quite imaginative and in many ways more impressive. And unlike other films where the characters just seem to live in a bizarro world, in this case two "normal" people are thrust into a bizarro world that existed nearby all along and they never knew it.
This film was a bit of a departure for Waters in a couple of ways. First of all Divine did not appear. This perplexed me for many years, but I eventually discovered that it was written with Divine in mind, but he had other contractual obligations that precluded involvement in "Desperate Living" (he would have played Mole McHenry). The other way in which it was a departure for Waters is that he actually created elaborate sets rather than just using existing apartments, houses, and offices. In this way the characters were truly in a world of their own rather than occupying an otherworldly subculture within our own day-to-day world. And it seemed to be the most ambitious project of his to date.
Next came "Polyester," which marked the beginning of Waters' transition into mainstream filmmaking. While it was an outrageous and bizarre story, there was no nudity or graphic perversity, which was able to keep the rating down to a respectable R. It also featured a "real" actor, Tab Hunter, who was a notable Hollywood heartthrob of the 70's. I thought the movie was okay, but I didn't like it as much as the earlier ones. It seemed that the outrageousness and trashiness had been watered down. To typical audiences it was over the top, but for traditional Waters aficionados, it fell short. I also felt that the storyline meandered a lot, especially towards the end. In that way it reminded me more of Waters' earliest works.
By this time Waters had foregone the trash and obscenity of his earlier works and replaced it with camp and irony. All his earlier works employed copious amounts of camp and irony, but now it was center stage, and it was more pure and innocent. I felt that it worked marvelously for "Hairspray."
At the time, that brought me up to the present day, and from that point on I was able to follow Waters' career in real-time. When "Cry Baby" was released I ran to the theater with baited breath. I wasn't sure what to expect. It was rated PG-13, so I knew it would still be relatively wholesome. Tragically Divine had passed away by this time, which made me wonder what direction Waters would take. By his own admission all his earlier works were basically vehicles for Divine. "Hairspray" was a bit of a departure from this in that Divine played a supporting rather than central role. But he still had a commanding presence.
Pretty early on it was clear that this movie would be a musical. Where "Hairspray" had been musical in nature, what with the teen dance setting, this film was a traditional musical where the cast actually broke into song and dance numbers. The story was about a misunderstood bad boy, and the good girl who developed a crush on him and was introduced to his edgy world. That had a certain innocence and charm to it, but let's face it. It's been done. What heretofore had impressed me most about John Waters' work was its uncompromising and almost incomprehensible originality. The "Cry Baby" story was borderline cliché. Perhaps Waters had intended it to be a parody, or "in the spirit of" the way that Rocky Horror was effectively in homage of all the old B movies. All I knew was that it didn't really interest me.
In one way I found the cast to be very interesting. Johnny Depp was an interesting and prophetic choice. At the time he was really only known for "21 Jump Street" but he immediately followed up "Cry Baby" with Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorfingers" and the rest is history. Also notable were porn star Tracy Lords, rock star Iggy Pop, and Warhol veteran Joe Dallesandro. Those were all good choices. But beyond that, Waters' cadre of off-color characters seemed to be a pale shadow of the good old Edith Massey days. Ultimately I have to say that the whole movie was a disappointment.
Next came "Serial Mom." This movie was rated R, and I hoped that it would return to some of Waters' earlier outrageousness and trashiness. What stood out right away were the mainstream, big-name actors Sam Waterston and Kathleen Turner. Also interesting to see in the cast was Patty Hearst. John Waters always had a knack for creative casting, and he scored a coup with her.
I had an idea where Waters was coming from with the story. I knew he had an unusual interest in crime, and I assume he thought it would be fun to have a typical suburban mother who became a serial killer. As the movie played out I found it to be rife with irony, there was some graphic gore, and there were plenty of funny moments, but it didn't really impress me. It was unusual. It was off-color. It was original. But it wasn't outrageous. It wasn't shocking. It wasn't memorable. In my opinion, it didn't measure up.
Waters' following film was "Pecker." Again, I had high hopes. Again it had irony. It had funny moments. It had an unusual cast and original characters. But I still didn't feel it measured up. And I didnít think it was a terribly original story. An innocent and pure artist is first taken in by and later rejected by the art establishment. It's been done. I also felt that the storyline was rushed. Waters has always imposed upon himself a strict limit of 90 minutes per picture. I think that with "Pecker" he had to rush to cram everything he wanted into that 90 minutes, and the pace of the story suffered terribly.
Beyond that, it was hard to put my finger on what was missing. "Hairspray" was able to impress me without employing trashy, filthy, obscenity, so it wasn't that. It seemed like all the pieces were in place, but the whole wasn't exceeding the sum of the parts. It wasn't bad, really. It just wasn't good. At least it wasn't the kind of good that I had come to expect from John Waters. His films used to grab me by the balls and wouldn't let go.
I can't help but notice that the last Waters movie I liked was "Hairspray," which was also the last movie in which Divine appeared. I am not suggesting that it is the absence of Divine exactly that I feel is missing. But Divine was Waters' muse. He was his inspiration. And if I had to sum up what I felt the problem was with Waters' subsequent movies, I would have to say that they had become uninspired.
"Cecil B. DeMented" was the fist John Waters film that I actually disliked. I've only seen it once, and that was a long time ago, so it's difficult to cite specifics. I just remember that I found the pace to be even more rushed than "Pecker," I didn't really find it to be particularly funny, and it was basically just not entertaining to me. Frankly I found it to be annoying, and while I was watching it I pretty much couldn't wait for it to end.
I always hold out hope that I'll like the next John Waters film. At the time of this writing I have not yet seen "A Dirty Shame," but early indications are encouraging. But even if I never like another one of his movies, I still like him. I like to hear him in interviews. I applaud what he stands for. And I revere him as a model of taking the back door into movie making. He didn't march into Hollywood and start sending out screenplays. He never succumbed to the will of focus groups. He did his own thing, and he's still doing his own thing. It doesn't matter one bit if I like his work or not. What's important is that he's still doing it, and that he can still get his movies made.
If you love outrageousness, then you gotta love Divine. I mean... just look at him. The body. The clothes. The hair. The makeup. The attitude. He is in every way the physical embodiment of "outrageous." He was absolutely, positively, one-of-a-kind. There'll never be another one like him.
Surprisingly, Divine was not a drag queen in real life. He only did it for performances. Similarly, he was not transgendered in any way, which is why I refer to him as "he." He was lucky to have a naturally high voice, which was perfect for his female characters, and a balding head, which was perfect for the elaborate makeup effects he sported. He could also adopt the mannerisms and body language of women in a completely convincing manner. I especially loved "Female Trouble" where he could strike a variety of fashion model poses at the drop of a hat.
When he wasn't doing John Waters films, he would sometimes appear in campy 70's stage productions. It was his contractual obligations to one of these production that prevented him from participating in the filming of "Desperate Living." He also had a nightclub act that he would perform in discotheques. Quite often the disco dancers weren't prepared for Divine's unique brand of entertainment and could get rather hostile towards him. This only served to increase the trashiness of his performances. He loved it when people would say, "Why don't you go fuck yourself!" He'd say, "I already DID! You should watch my movies" (referring to a scene in "Female Trouble" where he plays both characters engaged in sexual intercourse). What I wouldn't give to be able to turn back the clock and bear witness to those outlandish shows.
In his tell-all book "Not Simply Divine," long-time friend and manager Bernard Jay painted a different picture of the Divine he knew off camera. He described Divine as "anti-social" in the clinical sense. Divine did not concern himself with conventional social niceties or things like punctuality. Also, Divine suffered from sleep apnea, which left him exhausted all the time. He would fall asleep in any place at any time, and his apnea caused him to gurgle, choke, and snore while he was sleeping. This made him rather unpleasant to be around, especially on planes and in cars. Divine loved to spend money, but he didn't really care whether he had any to spend or not. This left him constantly broke and made it difficult to do things like maintain a steady residence.
Divine also did a couple movies other than John Waters projects. He appeared in "Lust In The Dust," which was basically a cheesy Waters rip-off. He also appeared in the Alan Rudolph film "Trouble In Mind" starring Kris Kristofferson. I found the movie to be dreadfully slow-paced and boring, but Divine did an okay job. The interesting thing was he played a male character for once. He was also being considered for a recurring role on the Fox program "Married With Children" where he'd play Crazy Uncle Otto. Again, this would have been a male role, and it would have catapulted him to everyday fame and notoriety.
Alas, Divine passed away just as the Fox deal was coming together. He did not succumb to booze, drugs, or disease. It was the sleep apnea that got him. One night he literally suffocated as he slept. The real tragedy was that the condition was 100% treatable. He didn't need to die. His loss was a tragedy of epic proportions. It leaves fans like me wondering what amazing things he would have achieved, and would still be achieving.
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