Interview: John Waters on ‘Pink Flamingos,’ the transformation of Divine and the changing face of indie cinema

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Friday, April 1, 2011 | Englert | 6 p.m. Doors

Everyone has their first time with John Waters. For me, it was the summer of 1976, when I took off from my Grandmother’s house in Provo Utah, after a weird, lonely, freshman year at BYU (don’t ask) and hitchhiked around the West. I ended up — rather crazed after sleeping rough alongside Interstate 5 — in Berkeley, crashing with hippie friends. My first night in town they took me to see a midnight showing of Pink Flamingos.

Someone who has grown up with the internet can’t know what it meant to collide head-on, with no prior knowledge, with Pink Flamingos. Divine kills cops and gnaws their bloody femurs, the Egg Lady sits in her playpen and the Singing Asshole flexes its way into infamy to the tune of “Surfin’ Bird.” It wasn’t so much that it was obscene or shocking; it was a completely different category of experience and it oddly captured the zeitgeist, at least for the freaks, losers and misfits we all imagined we were. That infamous scene at the end where Divine chomps on the dog crap and smiles that horrible, brown smile? We were all right there with her. Him. As children in the ’70s, we felt like we’d been eating shit and trying to smile in spite of it our whole lives.

The films of John Waters are arresting and unique. His breakout trash trilogy of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living was a counterculture litmus test; they horrified the straight citizens as much as they tickled the freaks. They celebrated the grotesque, the antisocial and the criminal, cartoonishly exaggerating the frightening spectre the media presented of hippie culture. They were garish, tasteless, mean-spirited, loud and wickedly funny.

With Polyester, Waters cut down on the gross-outs in favor of a more nuanced kind of social satire; Divine plays a repressed & depressed housewife trapped in a loveless marriage. He still worked in some deviance and filth, but there was some genuine heart to Polyester, even if it came in the form of a 300-pound man playing a housewife. The movie still ends in murder and mayhem, but it’s a happy ending, reconciling Divine with her delinquent children.

Hairspray, his next film, was a crossover hit. It even –shockingly, for Waters — garnered a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The story of a “pleasingly plump” teenager (Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad) pursuing her dream to win a TV dance contest was irresistibly sweet. Divine’s transformation from hippie boogie monster to acclaimed character actor was made complete with her dual roles of Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile. Hairspray has turned into an enduring franchise, with a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical starring Harvey Fierstein and film version of the musical with John Travolta reprising Divine’s role.

Water’s has a second career as a writer, with three books to his credit. His most recent, Role Models, presents a rogue’s gallery of the diverse people who Waters finds inspiring, from Johnny Mathis to former Manson Family member and convicted murderer Leslie Van Houton. He’s even curated a unique Christmas album comprising some of the most tasteless and misbegotten holiday songs every recorded.

I spoke to Waters on the phone in mid-February and found him to be a charming and convivial interviewee.

I have this quote from Quentin Crisp: “In an expanding universe time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that, without changing their address, they eventually live in the metropolis.” Do you feel like you’ve gone through progression in terms of your art?

Oh, well I never say the word art, you can say it, I certainly never say ‘art,’ … I would think history would be the judge of that. I think that the ultimate irony in my life is that I am an insider now, yes, and I didn’t really change that much. But I think that’s if they can’t get rid of you they learn to embrace you. But … I knew Quentin, and at the very end of his life he was rejected again by the gay world because of his fairly insensitive comments about AIDS. So at the end Quentin was kind of back where he started. Even being rejected by the outsiders. I’ve always said that my biggest most core audience is minorities that can’t even sit in with their own minority.

Your public persona always seemed to have some of Vincent Price’s cheer, were you a fan of his? When I’ve seen stuff –I watched This Filthy World on Netflix last night and you remind me, you’re not the same at all, but you remind me a little of Vincent Price.

Oh I love Vincent Price! I met his daughter and I told her I’ve been trying to steal her father’s career forever! And Vincent Price called me once, because there was a documentary very late in his life about him, and I was interviewed in it just saying what a childhood hero he was and everything, and he called me up and thanked me. It was really lovely! I was obsessed by Vincent Price ever since The Tingler when I saw it, which is one of the first movies that ever mentioned LSD. But he was I think hilarious and great and yes I, um, he’s one of my idols.

Edith Massey’s dream when she young was to be in the movies. You made that dream come true. Did she ever go Hollywood on you?

She never went Hollywood but she died in LA. She moved to Los Angeles and she had a thrift shop. Edith never went Hollywood but … she was an underground movie star. Definitely.

She was also, I think, an incredibly good sport. In watching Pink Flamingos, she’s sitting in her underwear in a playpen, covered in fried eggs, and you can see her breath steaming.

She was a trouper, let’s put it that way. She had a hard time memorizing lines and she was not in real life a bohemian certainly. But she had had a very very tough life, and she did become a movie star, and loved her fans. She lived for her fans. And later she was in a punk rock band which she traveled with, so she got to travel all over. She was a classy lady in a weird way.

When Divine played women, he’s obviously in drag, but I forget he’s in drag and it feels like a really sympathetic character. Even in Female Trouble.

He was playing a role that isn’t a role a drag queen would ever play. In Polyester he played an alcoholic housewife, and he played a blue collar hag, almost, in Hairspray. What drag queen would ever allow themselves to look like that? He wasn’t a drag queen in real life, he wouldn’t walk around in drag or anything, ever. Maybe he did a couple of times when he was 17 but no he wasn’t a transvestite or anything certainly. He was an actor and he liked playing men just as much, really. When we’d established the image of Divine as this frightening monster, like a hippie mobster, then when he switched it all around completely and played the opposite, a sad mother, that’s when he got really good reviews because it was against type. But we had to make his ‘type’ be the type in the beginning for that to happen.

What I’ve read is that you’ve had trouble getting Fruitcake made, your new movie.

I haven’t made it yet. I don’t think many independent films are getting made that are budgeted at $5 million. They’re budgeted below a million or at $100 million. We’re still trying, but, the independent film business has radically changed in the last five years. New Line Cinema, who did all my movies, all the people that were there [that I knew] are gone now. It’s a different time… I have a book out. I’m always trying to reinvent myself every year, so you’ve got a couple of careers to pick from.

Have you considered going to more guerrilla filmmaking with cheap digital equipment?

No, because I have four people that work for me, and I live in a couple [of cities]. I did that, I’m not going to go backwards and have a faux revolution. I did that. It would be forced, it wouldn’t be natural which it was when those years happened.

Well you don’t need to have so many people working for you when you write a book.

It takes longer, though.

You want to talk a little about This Filthy World? I watched the DVD —

It’s very different than the DVD, it’s different, completely updated and re-written. It’s about my interests, it’s about my career, it’s about my obsessions, about crime, about fashion, about movies, about how to have a happy life if you can be a neurotic and still be happy. I think it’s a self-help speech for lunatics.

Kent Williams has been distracted by shiny objects in Iowa City since the Ford Administration. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 101.

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