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John Waters


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Also Known As: John Samuel Waters Jr. Died:
Born: April 22, 1946 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Baltimore, Maryland, USA Profession: screenwriter, director, author, actor, director of photography, editor, producer, lecturer, puppeteer, artist


Transgressive filmmaker John Waters remained on the cinematic fringe for more than a decade before his outrageous and intentionally offensive movies gradually met with a sort of begrudging critical and commercial acceptance. Operating from his home base of Baltimore, the pencil-mustached Waters arrived on the scene with his barely-seen short "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" (1964), before ultimately moving on to such monuments of bad taste as "Mondo Trasho" (1969) and the notorious "Pink Flamingos" (1972). His muse and star in these early efforts was the portly female impersonator Divine, with whom he would make a total of six feature films. Other frequent collaborators like Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce - known collectively as the Dreamlanders - became staples of Waters' exorcises in outré behavior. A spoof of the "women's films" of the 1950s, "Polyester" (1981) was the first of Waters' films to receive wider distribution and a long-denied R rating. Gradually, the filmmaker achieved a semblance of respectability with the publication of his first book, 1981's Shock Value, and later made a name for himself as an admired and innovative photographic artist. He moved further into the mainstream with...

Transgressive filmmaker John Waters remained on the cinematic fringe for more than a decade before his outrageous and intentionally offensive movies gradually met with a sort of begrudging critical and commercial acceptance. Operating from his home base of Baltimore, the pencil-mustached Waters arrived on the scene with his barely-seen short "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" (1964), before ultimately moving on to such monuments of bad taste as "Mondo Trasho" (1969) and the notorious "Pink Flamingos" (1972). His muse and star in these early efforts was the portly female impersonator Divine, with whom he would make a total of six feature films. Other frequent collaborators like Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce - known collectively as the Dreamlanders - became staples of Waters' exorcises in outré behavior. A spoof of the "women's films" of the 1950s, "Polyester" (1981) was the first of Waters' films to receive wider distribution and a long-denied R rating. Gradually, the filmmaker achieved a semblance of respectability with the publication of his first book, 1981's Shock Value, and later made a name for himself as an admired and innovative photographic artist. He moved further into the mainstream with movies like "Hairspray" (1988), "Cry Baby" (1990) and "Serial Mom" (1994), starring the likes of Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner. After Waters' 1988 film had been adapted into a successful stage play, the smash hit musical version of "Hairspray" (2007) seemed to complete his transformation from eccentric Hollywood outsider to pop culture icon.

Born on April 22, 1946, Waters was raised in a devout middle-class Catholic home in the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville, alongside a younger brother and two younger sisters. His father owned his own business as a fire-extinguishing equipment maker, an enterprise which once employed his future famous son for several hours. As a boy, Waters gleefully reveled in the visuals of the grotesque and the themes of villains, creating his own staged toy car mash-ups. He was also funny, and by age 12, was making money as a puppeteer at children's parties. During the 1950s, Waters received his formal education at several local parochial schools, an education in which he found little inspiration. He was a member of the Catholic Youth Organization, but found more interest in recreational drugs like LSD and the works of Sigmund Freud and William Burroughs. The Catholic group ultimately came to find its perspective too incompatible with Waters and, not surprisingly, severed its affiliation with him.

While attending Calvert Hall College High School in the early 1960s, Waters was actively looking for an outlet for his energy. His teachers were not in favor of him pursuing any of his desired activities and made it verbally clear. In fact, they had a list of movies they were adamant should absolutely not be seen by students, a list which very quickly came to constitute the very movies Waters wanted to see. While in Sunday school, he would even draw movie poster ads reflecting the films as he imagined them to be. It was at Calvert Hall, that he began tuning out the confinements of his religious upbringing en masse, in favor of hitting the local drive-ins and colleges in his consumption of movies, as much intoxicated by the works of Fellini and Bergman as he was of William Castle and Russ Meyer.

Waters' high school years were filled with numerous dinner table arguments about politics, with Waters often butting heads against his parents' conservative views. Despite their attempts, the couple had a difficult time understanding their son's burgeoning, seemingly off-kilter sensibilities. During this time, Waters was fond of bringing home dinner guests with hideous appearances and mannerisms that were sure to offend his parents. He was as much fascinated by the objects of cultural derision as he was by the reactions they produced, to say nothing of the humor that derived from the shock. Waters' childhood was also notable for his friendship with a neighbor just down the block, a quiet, overweight boy who sometimes enjoyed cross-dressing named Harris Glenn Milstead. Milstead, who tended to keep to himself, had found a kindred spirit in the openly gay Waters, was well aware of the disapproval that would accompany any behavior not deemed normal for the times. Waters, in turn, had affectionately referred to Milstead as his "divine" inspiration; a label which became Milstead's performing alter-ego, Divine.

In 1965, Waters attended the University of Baltimore before transferring to New York University a year later. He returned to Baltimore after he was discovered smoking marijuana and the school took action in the form of expulsion. Waters and Divine partnered in a film company called Dreamland Productions which, from the onset, was almost militant in its allegiance to a smart brand of bad taste. Waters had a steady team of performers in the company, which he ran like a driven visionary. Aside from his leading "lady" Divine, actresses Nancy Stoll - reinvented as Mink Stole - Mary Vivian Pierce, and actor David Lochary were in the mix as well. With a super 8mm camera given to Waters by his grandmother and his parents' financial backing, the company made a series of small, low-budget short films which Waters often shot in his parents' house. These included "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" (1964), "Roman Candles" (1966), "Eat Your Makeup" (1968) and "Mondo Trasho" (1969).

The early films were both learning tools for the fledgling filmmaker, as well as a criticism of "normal" society. Waters' early output was the sacred and the profane, spliced and diced together. "Hag" focused on interracial love, while "Roman Candles" was a collage of sexual activity and beloved cultural iconography. Upgrading to 16mm, "Eat Your Makeup" - his first film with Divine - told the tale of a sadistic man who forces models to strut to the point of death. Amazingly, Waters managed to get his early short films screened in the basements of a few of the city's more amenable churches.

As his ambitions and imagination expanded, Waters' taste for shock remained in full flight. His first feature-length film, "Multiple Maniacs" (1970), began with the introduction of Divine as the head of a roaming sexual carnival called the "Cavalcade of Perversion" and later followed with her rape at the claws of a gigantic lobster. The film starred the usual Dreamland regulars, but also introduced a new company cast regular in actress Edith Massey. Waters' reputation had now initiated a groundswell of chatter, stemming from an incident during the production of "Mondo Trasho" in which Waters and company were caught filming shots with a naked hitchhiker on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. It was an action that landed the involved participants in jail on a charge of attempted indecent exposure. Hollywood took notice of the event, with Waters' unique even for Hollywood antics seemingly selling him as a commodity. Plunked in the general company of an 'X' rating - as most of his films would be - "Multiple Maniacs" received the midnight movie treatment in 16 cities. The film's auspicious release also partnered Waters with Bob Shaye's upstart company, New Line Cinema, which began a creative partnership of funding and distribution.

Two years after "Multiple Maniacs," Waters had taken a definitive early snapshot of his style with "Pink Flamingos" (1972), his third feature after "The Diane Linkletter Story" (1970). Waters shot "Flamingos" sporadically on a paltry budget of $10,000 and, released in March of 1972, it became another midnight movie crowd pleaser. The plot featured Divine as a mobile home misfit who unwittingly discovers that she and her family are rated the "filthiest people in the world" before attempting to defend the crown against a black-market, baby-selling family. The film was destined to live in gleeful infamy when Divine, in character as Babs Johnson, retained her family's title by eating real dog excrement. Not surprisingly, the critical response of disgust heard round the world was a badge of honor for Waters.

After being eviscerated in print, Waters was not sure how he could top the grandeur of "Pink Flamingos." He decided to dig deeper and draw from his own personal interests, one of which was a long-held fascination with criminals, specifically, the famous American trials he enjoyed attending. The result was "Female Trouble" (1974), a mock send-up of headline crimes with its loose allusions to the Manson family killings. In the film, Divine played both a young murderer on the lam and the man who picks her up and impregnates her, with the story detailing her eventual end in the electric chair. Waters used a personal memory of his Christmas tree-pinned grandmother to formulate one of the movie's famous scenes in which Divine's character murders her parents by toppling a Christmas tree on top of them.

The next feature that Waters wrote and directed, "Desperate Living" (1977), was made without the participation of the increasingly in-demand Divine, who was unavailable due to drag appearance commitments. Regular Dreamland player Mink Stole filled in ably as a murderous suburban housewife who murders her husband and then embarks on a fairytale-esque trek along with her heavyset maid. "Desperate Living" was classic Waters, but "Polyester" (1981), for which Divine returned to the fold, was the start of a different John Waters era. The film focused on the crumbling home life of another suburban housewife at the hands of her boorish, cheating husband. Perhaps a sign that Waters was headed in a slightly more accessible direction, "Polyester" was the first of his films to star a well-known movie actor, former '50s teen idol Tab Hunter, and was Waters' first with an R rating, allowing the film to appear in mainstream movie theaters. The film also tried to resolve itself with a un-Waters-like happy ending. The director even seemed to be cleverly including the audience. In one of cinema's more bizarre techniques, Waters took a cue from one of his film heroes, William Castle, and created scratch and sniff "Odorama" cards that could be smelled during different parts of the movie. Many scents were mimics of everyday odors, not surprisingly including the smell of feces.

After "Polyester," there was a long break between films. That year, Waters released a book about his life and collaborations entitled Shock Value. Realizing he would probably have to move on from the style of his early films, Waters seemed to be in the process of figuring out what the next chapter would entail. He still wanted to represent the mistreated outcasts and those behaviors deemed deviant by society that were at the core of his themes. Despite his reputation, Waters' persona thus far had managed to suit his hometown just fine, as its mayor, William Donald Schaefer, in 1985, declared February 7 to be "John Waters Day." Waters even used his increasing recognition in a car salesman cameo in Jonathan Demme's big screen comedy, "Something Wild" (1986). That year, a collection of Waters' essays entitled Crackpot was released to bookshelves.

Having found a personal interest that would not offend the Hollywood studio audiences, Waters returned in a big way with "Hairspray" (1988). Set in 1962, "Hairspray" told the sweet story of Tracy, an overweight girl who endures the egging of a more beautiful rival in her attempts to become a dancer on her favorite television variety show. Tracy ultimately triumphs and g s on to promote racial tolerance with her newfound celebrity. Waters' old Dreamland cohorts Divine and Mink Stole were present in the film, but this time, the lead was played by a young actress named Ricki Lake, and Waters had the cache to land other celebrities, such as singers Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono for supporting roles.

With a budget of over two million dollars - then a sizeable amount for a John Waters film - "Hairspray" was a critical and financial triumph for its writer-director and its production company, New Line Cinema. $400,000 of that figure and over half a year of Waters' time were spent in acquiring the clearances to his desired soundtrack choices. Still, he was almost embarrassed at having a PG rating on his permanent record. Sadly, on March 7, 1988, only a few weeks after the film's premiere, Divine, who was preparing to appear on the Fox network's flagship sitcom "Married with Children" (1987-1997), had a fatal bout of heart failure. The symbolic passing of Waters' early style had come to a literal end with the death of his friend and onscreen muse.

By 1990, Waters was still content to stay in period mode for a while. He briefly ventured over to Universal Studios with another equally defiant talent named Johnny Depp for the Ron Howard-Brian Grazer produced "Cry-Baby" (1990). The movie was Waters' affectionate take on movies from the 1950s, a homage to a time when slick-haired rockabilly rebellion seemed enticing to teens and dangerous to parents. Though a studio film, Waters managed to slip in some eccentric casting choices, including punk icon Iggy Pop. More notably, though, Waters found supporting roles for former teen porn queen Traci Lords and Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst and more famously, the captive-turned-revolutionary of the Symbionese Liberation Army, whom he had befriended after attending her trial for armed robbery. "Cry-Baby" was an ambitious, but commercial failure, one gained its passionate followers over time like most Waters projects.

Waters was kind enough to match Depp's "Cry-Baby" role by appearing on Depp's day gig, the Fox series, "21 Jump Street" (1987-1991), but took another few years between films. With 1994's "Serial Mom," a film that resumed Waters' satire of all things suburban, he reentered the present. In a role that Waters deemed perfect for its star, husky-voiced Kathleen Turner played a sweet suburban wife and mother who found her inner rage unleashed in the form of multiple murders. Waters naturally found roles for Mink Stole and Patty Hearst. The movie was not a financial or critical success, but a $13 million budget was Waters' biggest to date.

He was now in his fifties and working less frequently, but Waters still made the occasional cameo. He poked fun at himself in a February 1997 episode of Fox's animated series "The Simpsons" (1989- ) and a year later, turned up on the sitcom "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004). Getting back to film work, "Pecker" (1998) became Waters' next studio film project. "Pecker" embraced the idea that the eccentricities of Waters' subjects could now accentuate a film rather than dominate. As usual, the film produced a divided reaction, although the latest film, about an unfortunately-nicknamed teenage photographer who finds himself seduced by success and leaves his quirky Baltimore life for the New York fashion world, seemed almost too tame for Waters' standards.

Into the new decade, a bit of the vintage Waters crept back in with "Cecil B. Demented" (2000), which quickly came on the heels of the disappointment of "Pecker." Though not as humorous as the films that built his shock legacy, "Demented" seemed charged in a way that Waters' work had not been since the '70s output. In the film, a reactionary band of filmmakers, led by a guerilla director, force a Hollywood actress to star in its low-budget movie. Unwilling at first, she soon comes to side with her outlaw captors. It was an intriguing road map of Waters' personal history with the Dreamland gang and the fascination with the Patty Hearst story all over again. The ringmaster Waters had sufficiently managed to get loose performances out of his Hollywood cast. This time, moving beyond the 'barbs, Waters had found the perfect target to satirize, within the pomp and bombast of big Hollywood.

In 2002, "Hairspray" was adapted for the Broadway Stage by veteran composer Marc Shaiman. The show was a success and a critical favorite, winning several Tony Awards in 2003. Waters still was not completely ready to be a mainstream darling, though. If "Cecil B. Demented" brought vulgarity back to the forefront of Waters' concerns, then "A Dirty Shame" (2004) kept it alive and kicking. Another example documenting the awakenings of suburban repression, Waters turned comedienne-actress Tracey Ullman into a fictional sex addict housewife who ends up in a local sex cult. The film did not skimp on the bodily excrement and fluids, earning it an NC-17 rating for release. Unfortunately, the movie succeeded only in proving that Waters had not lost his passion for the deviant flipside of mainstream culture.

Almost two decades after the debut of "Hairspray," New Line was producing a second movie version of "Hairspray" (2007) based on the musical adaptation of the original movie, with John Travolta taking on Divine's role of Edna Turnblad. Several decades after making his first short films, John Waters had managed to become an iconic cultural figure; one only somewhat less egregious, but probably also one much less misunderstood. Not above cashing in on his newfound respectability, Waters appeared as The Groom Reaper, the host of the campy "'Til Death Do Us Part" (Court TV, 2007), a true crime series recounting tales of matrimony gone murderously wrong. In a show of solidarity, he also helped out up-and-coming subversive filmmaker Keven Undergaro by narrating his low-budget fantasy-comedy hybrid "In the Land of Merry Misfits" (2007).

As an elder statesman of the underground, Waters proved he could still genuinely raise a few eyebrows when in 2009, he publicly advocated parole for convicted murderer and former Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten. Having first met her in 1985 for a Rolling Stone interview, Waters later developed a deep friendship with the greatly repentant Van Houten - an unconventional relationship he covered in great detail in his 2010 book, Role Models. On a much lighter note, he made an appearance in the music video for "The Creep," a satirical song by The Lonely Island, the comedy trio comprised of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Waters stayed close to his unconventional film roots as well, appearing as the spirit of Jesus Christ in the coming-of-age comedy "Mangus!" (2011), followed by a cameo in "Excision" (2012), a horror-comedy about a delusional teenage girl (AnnaLynne McCord) with aspirations of entering the medical profession.


Filmographyclose complete filmography


  Dirty Shame, A (2004) Director
  Cecil B. Demented (2000) Director
  Pecker (1998) Director
  Serial Mom (1994) Director
  Cry Baby (1990) Director
  Hairspray (1988) Director
  Polyester (1981) Director
  Desperate Living (1977) Director
  Female Trouble (1975) Director
  Pink Flamingos (1974) Director

CAST: (feature film)

 Excision (2012)
 Mansome (2012)
 Mangus! (2011)

Milestones close milestones

Raised in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland
Began working as a puppeteer at age 12, performing at children's birthday parties
Directed first 8mm short, "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket"
Released three of his 8mm shorts under the umbrella title, "Roman Candles"; first collaboration with Divine and Mink Stole
Feature film debut as writer/director, "Mondo Trasho"
First feature starring Divine, "Multiple Maniacs"
Attended court trials of the Manson gang, Patty Hearst, and serial killer Richard Ramirez
Released the notorious cult film, "Pink Flamingos" starring Divine and Mink Stole; film was closed down in Hicksville, NY and Waters fined $5,000 for obscenity; film was also banned in Australia, Canada and Norway
"Pink Flamingos" was accepted into the permanent collection of the Musum of Modern Art
First studio-backed feature, "Polyester" starring Divine and Mink Stole; employed "Odorama" a gimmick involving the distribution of scratch-and-sniff cards to be used with visual cues in the film
Made cameo appearance as car salesman in Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild"
Had role in TV-movie "Passion Flower" (CBS)
Directed his most profitable feature (to date) "Hairspray"; first film with Ricki Lake; last film with Divine
Honored with a 7-day career retrospective, "Midnight Madness: The Films of John Waters" at the Angelika Theater in NYC
First Hollywood A-list film (major stars; $13 million budget), "Serial Mom"
Participated on-camera in "Ballyhoo! The Hollywood Sideshow" (American Movie Classics)
Provided a character voice on the animated FOX series "The Simpsons"
"Pink Flamingos" was re-released in a 25th Anniversary edition
Wrote and directed "Pecker," a semi-autobiographical portrait of a teenaged photographer
Featured in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown"
Helmed "Cecil B. DeMented" starring Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff; loosely based on the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst
Directed the the NC-17-rated "A Dirty Shame" starring Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville and Selma Blair
Voiced the Sleazy Reporter in "Seed of Chucky"
Played the narrator/groom reaper in the 13-part TV true-crime drama series "Til Death Do Us Part" (Court TV)
Appeared in "This Filthy World," a straight documentary of his long-running one-man show


Calvert Hall College High School: Baltimore , Maryland -
New York University: New York , New York -


Waters reported that he was expelled from the New York University Film School for smoking pot according to USA Today, (April 12, 1994). He also cheerfully admits to years of LSD use.

"I think he's probably a genius," she [Kathleen Turner, star of 'Serial Mom'] says of Waters. 'Quite frankly, you don't create your own genre and an international audience completely outside a system--and in spite of the Hollywood system--unless you have one hell of a lot of talent.'" --quoted in "John Waters' Weirdness Runs Deep" by Luaine Lee inDaily News, April 12, 1994.

"How could I have sold out? . . . My movie stars a 300-pound transvestite and Tab Hunter." --Waters to New York Post after being accused of selling out by making the relatively commercial movie, "Polyester" (1981).

"In our neighborhood, you always left the garbageman liquor at Christmas. I always wished that garbagemen were my secret friends. I love when they pull up in Baltimore and go 'Hoo!' That's when you have to run out and give them liquor or money or whatever." --John Waters, talking to Ann Magnuson in "Moveable Blood Feast" in Paper, May 1994.

"I don't make films about things I hate," Waters says. "What always makes me laugh are people who have very extreme taste and think they're very normal. That to me is the funniest ... I respect that. I don't look down on it, I'm IN AWE of it. Like people who have on the most hideous outfit and think they really look good. Who am I to say they don't really?" --Waters quoted in "Diving in New Waters" by Frank DeCaro in Newsday, April 11, 1994.

February 7, 1985 was declared "John Waters Day" in Baltimore, Maryland

Family close complete family listing

Pat Waters.
John Waters.

Bibliography close complete biography

"Crackpot" Macmillan
"Shock Value"
"Trash Trio"

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