"I was tired of being an outsider," admits filmmaker John Waters, fresh off a whirlwind, whistle-stop trip to Hollywood. "I was an outsider my whole life, and now everybody wants to be one. Who wants to be what everybody wants to be?"
The artist, author and counterculture auteur has never played by the rules of polite society, and at long last, he is reaping the rewards for it: This year, he received a star on the Walk of Fame and a first-of-its-kind exhibition at the Academy Museum, entitled John Waters: Pope of Trash, celebrating his cinematic body of work. Running through Aug. 4, 2024, Pope of Trash is the most immersive John Waters experience yet.
"The only other thing that would be more immersive is to sit and watch every one of my available films in one day, but then you would be taken to a mental institution," he deadpans. "If you haven't seen them, hopefully, it will make you want to watch them. There are so many clip reels and lots of footage; it would be the ultimate Coming Attractions."
Basking in the glow and celebration of his oeuvre, the writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor behind such classics as Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), and Serial Mom (1994), says his haters gave up long ago. Getting the Academy seal of approval "shows bad taste won in a joyous way."
"It has been like This Is Your Life, the old TV show," Waters grins mischievously. "It was a happy occasion that was like being at your own funeral — only not having to die!"
A.frame: What was it like going through the items that make up the exhibition and then walking through it for the first time? We often forget so much.
I did forget some of it. I forgot things like the different ad campaigns for Cecil B. Demented that we didn't use. There were things that people saw in my movies — like the real Fishpaw sign we used in Polyester, and the actual note from Serial Mom about white shoes after Labor Day — and the general public, they seemed to get a thrill from seeing it in real life. It's a reminder that we actually did make those movies at one point; they are real things that happened, and not something that lives in this void of being a print that gets played over and over. I guess it was just a reminder that it was all real.
A lot of what is in the exhibition comes from your personal collection. Was there anything you unearthed that even you didn't remember having?
I didn't realize we still had the Debbie Harry wig from Hairspray. Honestly, I didn't know that we had a lot of the stuff. When I wrote my book, Mr. Know-It-All, I went back and looked through some of the reviews and the paperwork to jog my memory for grosses when movies opened and that kind of thing, but I didn't look through all of the saved props. There were a few of the things I knew I had, like the leg of lamb from Serial Mom. I did have that in my office. I had my Writers Guild life achievement award and my French medal [in honor of being named an officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres] — I didn't sit around wearing it every day as I wrote. I didn't slip into my medal every morning, but maybe I will now that this is over! [Laughs]
Last year, you had an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art highlighting your personal art collection. This year, the Academy Museum has the first comprehensive museum retrospective dedicated to your films. How did the two curatorial processes and your involvement in both shows differ?
I also had several about my photography, so I've had three different kinds of museum shows. I keep those worlds very, very separate. The art world doesn't like it when people come in from movies. There are very few museums dedicated to films, and of course, the Academy one is the best and the newest. The collection of the art that I've collected over the years is something I have left to the Baltimore Museum, but although they don't get it until I'm dead, they did have a show of it. While that show was coming up and the Academy was coming to take all the stuff from all my homes, everywhere I lived, it looked like I had been robbed, because everything was missing! There are nails in the wall with dirt around them. They just brought the art collection back, so that's hung up, but then I thought, 'Where is that one Andy Warhol poster? They forgot to give it back.' Then I realized that it was in the Academy show, so I was getting mixed up.
I use the term retrospective, but it's not like your work or artistic presence has ever disappeared.
It's a retrospective of my career, because it starts from the very first movie and ends with the last one. It's my film career, and it has some of the acting career in it, too. I'm not finished yet, but it is definitely up to date.
On opening weekend, you provided a live commentary during an ultra-rare silent screening of Eat Your Makeup. How did you feel about seeing that film on the big screen and reuniting with Marina Melin?
It was great that Marina was there. I don't think she was even there when we had the premiere in Baltimore, so it was amazing to see her and have her stand up. I think she was very moved by it. Maybe it's better to see the movie this way, because we had different problems with music rights, so this is really the only way you can show it — to have me talk through it, which I've never done before. The audience seemed to like it, and it reinforced what I always tell young people: If you think you should cut something for the length of one of your movies, do cut it. It was too early in my career to have learned that. The movie is 40 minutes long, but it definitely should be 25 or 30.
Your work is so influential. Is there anyone in the industry who has turned out to be a fan that has surprised you?
It has all surprised me. Every time I got a Hollywood deal, it surprised me. Are you kidding? It surprised me when I was with Bob Shaye and we signed a deal for Pecker on a napkin. That cliche was true. Jeff Buhai, who co-wrote Revenge of the Nerds, who's my friend, taught me how to pitch. I went in and learned how to pitch, and I got many development deals because of that, but it was a shock every time. I remember the best time was when we went in to pitch Serial Mom and had 10 meetings lined up. We went in and pitched it, and then it was over. We walked out to the elevator, and the executive ran down the hall and said, 'Come back in here. Cancel the rest of your appointments. We'll do it.' That's a true Hollywood moment, and it's still amazing to me.
Who do you think is the John Waters of cinema today? Have you watched a movie where you've seen something that could be in a John Waters movie and thought, "I wish I'd thought of that?" The vomiting sequence in Triangle of Sadness felt very Waters-esque to me.
Well, I only make movies I write. I never see a movie and say, 'I wish I'd made it,' because I didn't think it up! I don't think anybody ever imitated me, but I think I influenced things that made bad taste more acceptable, funnier, and okay for a topic. I don't think anybody imitated me. An AI version of me would be big.
Which of your works are you most surprised has become part of pop culture? So many of them have.
Certainly, Pink Flamingos. Who would've thought the government would pick it for the National Film Registry? Even Variety did that great story, because they gave it the meanest review ever when it came out, which we quoted in the ads. This year, they did a whole piece about how they were wrong, and it's one of the 100 best films ever. That was really delightful to me, because I've read Variety since I was an early teen.
Serial Mom seems to have risen up the ranks in recent years in terms of popularity.
Yeah, you're right, and the movie was not a success when it came out at the box office. I tried to get the studio to pitch Kathleen Turner for Best Actress, but they wouldn't even think about it! She's really good in it, and she should have won. I think Serial Mom is my best movie, and I think many people are coming around to believe that now too.
Why do you think people are getting on board with it now?
The American sense of humor just got more towards my way. Things got so bad they can learn to laugh. Things have crept into their own families that they never thought would, and that's why it's so ridiculous that they try to stop drag queens. RuPaul made everybody in America like drag. Gay marriage? It's way too late. Everybody knows somebody in a gay marriage now, and that's not going back.
This year also marks the 35th anniversary of Hairspray, and Divine is getting their flowers more than ever.
Divine played against type in Hairspray, and that's when he started to get good reviews. The critics were scared of him. They thought he was real in Pink Flamingos. Divine was nothing like that character in real life. People thought that we lived in trailers and killed cops and ate them. People actually would say, 'Do you still live in the trailer?' And I felt like saying, 'Not only is that a dumb question, but they must've walked out [of the movie], because the trailer burns down at the end!'
Looking back, how have you evolved as a filmmaker?
With my first film, I wouldn't have known what I was doing. When it came to editing, I didn't even know there was such a thing! I just shot each take in order, and that was the movie. [Laughs]
Many people are very excited about you getting behind the camera for Liarmouth. What inspired you to direct your first feature in 20 years?
I've always wanted to direct again. I had many movies in development that didn't happen, but I was going to direct them. I was always happy to. There were five other movies since A Dirty Shame that got developed and never got made. Many of them were Hairspray sequels in some way. So, I never decided not to direct. It will be great if it happens, but let's see.
The "John Waters: Pope of Trash" screening series runs from Sept. 17 through Oct. 28, and the exhibition is now open at the Academy Museum.
Check out www.academymuseum.org for more information.