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John Waters – the Pope of Trash

John Waters was born in Baltimore in 1946. Raised Roman Catholic, he was a rather odd kid. He enjoyed staging violent puppet shows in which the puppets were murdered, and loved visiting crashed car lots. Luckily, he was blessed with very supportive parents who didn’t worry about his eccentricities. Waters’ boyhood friend, Glenn (who later became Divine), grew up in the same neighborhood and became the star of his early movies which were basically unedited home movies, and were often shown (surprisingly) only in churches, which hosted community activities.


While Waters wrote scripts because his actors weren’t good at adlibbing, these movies were a pretty crude affair and aimed for humor and shock value. He was influenced by Andy Warhol’s early films so there was little plot and virtually no quality control. All of his early films were shot in Baltimore on an 8mm movie camera given to him by his grandmother, and featured the Dreamlanders, his local company of actors and friends.

Waters is easily recognizable. Gauntly thin, he adopted his signature thin moustache as a teenager; it’s actually drawn in with eyeliner pencil. He had long hair and shopped in thrift stores. He admitted to taking a lot of LSD. His early campy movies (1972’s Pink Flamingos, 1974’s Female Trouble, and 1977’s Desperate Living) were star vehicles for Divine, and he labeled them the Trash Trilogy. Outrageous and obscene, they practically begged for censorship.

The rise of queer camp and midnight movies fueled his desire to make underground

films. Pink Flamingos, in which Divine fights to keep her title as “The Filthiest Person

Alive,” put a spotlight on Waters that hasn’t dimmed since. In an interview with the British Film Institute, he says it’s a great compliment that his audience grows younger as he grows older.


1981’s Polyester, a melodrama in which a suburban housewife’s world is falling apart, starred Divine and Tab Hunter. This was Waters’ first film that was financed by a studio and had a decent budget, and the first one where he stopped being the camera operator, which freed him up to concentrate on the role he liked the most — director. After Polyester, his films became slightly less controversial and more mainstream.

1988’s Hairspray was the last movie Waters produced. It became a hit Tony-winning Broadway musical. In 2007, John Travolta starred in a film adaptation of the musical which was released in theaters to positive reviews and commercial success. Waters says he “accidentally made a family movie” and now Hairspray is performed in high schools across the United States. Unfortunately, Divine died a week after Hairspray was released so that was the end of an era.

Waters’ teen musical romantic comedy Cry-Baby in which a prim and proper schoolgirl (Ricki Lake) defies her mother by dating a motorcycle-riding juvenile delinquent (Johnny Depp), also later became a Broadway musical. This film marked the first time that studios actually wanted to work with Waters.

In a 2017 interview with Simon Abrams, Waters says 1994’s Serial Mom is his best movie, the first one where he had enough money to do as he wanted. Starring Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, and Ricki Lake, it’s a story of a perfect suburban mom who becomes a serial murderer. It was not a success when it came out. Waters said, “It was the end of my Hollywood career, and then I went back to independent films. I sort of climbed up, then slipped back down.” 


2000’s Cecil B. Demented is a black comedy starring Melanie Griffith as an A-list Hollywood actress who is kidnapped by a band of terrorist filmmakers who force her to star in their underground film. A Dirty Shame (2004), starring Tracey Ullman, was the last film he directed (a sexually repressed suburban mom gets hit on the head by a lawnmower and changes from prude to prostitute). Waters said that the film’s poor box office performance prevented him from making more films.

They call John Waters the Pope of Trash. He’s an auteur, actor, screenwriter, and visual artist (he keeps his art career totally separate from his film career). He’s the author of Carsick (about hitchhiking across America) and his autobiography Mr. Know-It-All. He tours with his one-man show “This Filthy World.” He’s a Board member of the Maryland Film Festival Artforum magazine and author of its year-end Top Ten Films list — he takes an equal amount of joy from high-brow art films and sleazy exploitation films. He’s an outspoken proponent of gay rights and free speech.

Here’s what critic Roger Ebert said after panning one of his films as “cheerfully amateurish:”

“There will, however, always be a (small) corner of my heart filled with admiration for John Waters. He is an anarchist in an age of the cautious, an independent in an age of studio creatures, a man whose films are homemade and contain no chemicals or preservatives. Even with Cecil B. Demented, which fails on just about every level, you’ve got to hand it to him: The idea for the film is kind of inspired. When this kid gets out of high school, he’s going to amount to something. You wait and see.”