It's a beautiful summer day in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and John Waters has just come off the road from a marathon 10-city tour for his new book, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance. "Elton John told me a long time ago that the day you stop touring, it's over," he says.
In a few days, the filmmaker, author and raconteur will set off again for a punk festival in Oakland, the perfect way to cap off a Pride Month that has already been overfull with, well, Pride. "Pride in Provincetown is almost redundant. It's so odd they even have Gay Pride here — every day is that parade on the street! I just feel gay pride here all the time."
In conversation with A.frame, Waters, who is an Academy member, looks back on one of his most seminal queer movies, Pink Flamingos, on its 50th anniversary and looks forward to the future of Pride.
When Pink Flamingos premiered in 1972, it succeeded beyond what the so-called Pope of Trash could have ever dreamed. The movie — the first installment in his "Trash Trilogy," along with Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977) — was shot for $12,000 outside his hometown of Baltimore, with a cast that included his friend Mink Stole and the drag performer, Divine.
Despite being banned in several countries, the film was picked up for distribution by New Line Pictures and became a cult classic and midnight movie staple. When it was re-released 25 years later, it was still deemed shocking enough to deserve an NC-17 rating for "a wide range of perversions in explicit detail." So imagine Waters' surprise when the Library of Congress inducted Pink Flamingos into the National Film Registry of "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" in 2021.
"What a great honor it was, without any irony, and truly surprising to me," Waters reveals. "The films that I have joined, I never would have predicted. But at the same time, I always kind of believed anything was possible."
Pink Flamingos continues to shock and delight audiences. At a New York City screening of the Criterion Collection restoration, Waters was pleasantly shocked to find that it wasn't longtime devotees filling the theater, but new fans. "The audiences have been younger than ever. I asked, 'How many of you are seeing it for the first time?' And an alarming amount of hands went up," the director exclaims. "They were so young!"
Waters admits to being a bit nervous about how the film would play at that screening, for an audience more than two generations removed from the one he'd made it for. He needn't have worried. By the end, the audience was just as rowdy and delighted as the midnight movie veterans.
"I'm just happy it still works," he says, laughing. "I think why my movies continue to play is that no matter how crazy they are, they aren't mean-spirited. The people who win are the people who never win in real life. And that's their appeal."
The world's changed, but I didn't really. People just got much more joyous in accepting other things and seeing other lifestyles.
"What's amazing to me is that it didn't get nicer." Reflecting on the changing times, he adds, "The world's changed, but I didn't really. It's just that people got much more joyous in accepting other things and seeing other lifestyles and different kinds of movies than they were raised with. And now it's so exciting that the National Film Registry picked it, the Academy Museum is giving us a show."
Waters' filmography is chockablock with movies that center around outsiders and deal with themes of discrimination, respect and rebellion. At 76, he's seen, and directly contributed to, something of a sea change in the culture around LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance.
"There's not a TV show or movie that doesn't have a gay character anymore," he says. Still, he feels Pride celebrations continue to have an important place in culture. "It has come so far in some ways, but trans people are still getting murdered. There are still people that are afraid to come out to their families. I think all of gay pride only helps — making it as visible and talked about as possible."
Recent years have seen Waters venturing out to explore other artistic avenues, with his most recent directorial credit on 2015's Kiddie Flamingos, where child actors perform a "kid-friendly" table read of Pink Flamingos. Now, 20 films and eight nonfiction books later, Waters is venturing into novel writing for the first time with Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.
"Just to try something new. Same way I hitchhiked across America when I was 66 years old," he says. "I'm always daring myself to try something new as I get older."
Billed as a "hilariously filthy tale of sex, crime, and family dysfunction," the twisted tale centers on a scammer named Marsha Sprinkle, better known as Liarmouth. Waters concedes that novels do have a couple of advantages over movies. "You don't have to worry about the Motion Picture Association of America, and you don't have to worry about the budget. That's the two things that are very freeing when you write a novel!"
Like Pink Flamingos before it, Liarmouth has been well-received, much to Waters' relief. "The response has been very good so far, and believe me it could have gone either way," he admits. "Once you read it, you'll know what I mean. If you like some of my crazier films, you will not be disappointed!"
By Angelle Haney Gullett