BALTIMORE — John Waters led a delegation from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — for a week from Los Angeles — on a tour of his 32-year-old home, cluttered with movie artifacts and kitschy curios and tucked behind trees on a quiet corner five miles from the waterfront of this city.
There was a lot to see: the electric chair from his 1974 dark comedy, “Female Trouble”, in the hall. A birth certificate for Divine, the 300-pound transvestite who played the “dirtiest person in the world” in “Pink Flamingos,” hanging in a basement full of mementos. The stencilled poster for the 1966 premiere of ‘Roman Candles’ retrieved from a stack of boxes.
“Give me that leg of lamb,” Waters asked an assistant when two curators and the museum director followed him up the narrow stairs, through a doorway to his cramped two-room home office—one for “my writing and thinking” and one for, as he put it, sell. He offered for consideration a favorite artifact from his film career: the (rubber) leg of lamb that Kathleen Turner used as a murder weapon in a particularly gruesome scene from “Serial Mom.”
For decades, Waters was known for pushing the boundaries of taste when there were true boundaries of taste (enforced by entities like his one-time tormentor, the Maryland State Board of Censors), including the infamous closing scene in “Pink Flamingos,” which involved dog poop. is. William S. Burroughs called Waters the “Pope of the Waste,” and he meant that as a compliment.
Next summer, Waters, who is 76, will be honored by the establishment he has been flamboyantly provoking for more than 50 years. He will be the subject of a comprehensive 11,400-square-foot exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the museum honoring Hollywood that opened last year. With this exhibition, the Academy makes clear that its interest in curators goes beyond R2-D2 and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
This may not be easy. The Academy Museum has planted a flag as a family and tourist destination, which aren’t exactly John Waters fans. Despite the name of the exhibit — “Pope of the Trash,” of course — Bill Kramer, the museum’s director, said a sign might be placed at the entrance to warn the young and the squeamish.
“We don’t want to do anything that alienates our audience,” Kramer said, sliding a chair next to Waters in his living room. “We are now going through the design process and through that process we will ensure that the exhibition does not get watered down, but also becomes an exhibition for all ages to experience.”
“That’s a challenge,” Waters intervened.
“That’s a challenge,” Kramer agrees.
Waters has come quite a distance since 1973, when Variety described “Pink Flamingos” as “one of the most despicable, stupid, and abhorrent films ever made.” His next films – “Polyester”, starring Tab Hunter; “Cry-Baby”, starring Johnny Depp; and “Pecker,” featuring Patricia Hearst, to name a few — have become cult favorites, some still drawing crowds at midnight shows. “Hairspray,” his 1988 comedy, became a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards. Now, Waters will join the ranks of Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Godfather,” as the subject of an exhibition at the Academy Museum.
“People will definitely see irony in it,” Waters said. “My films, especially in the beginning, didn’t get good reviews, were censored, but people always came. Crazy people just came.”’
“And has any of them gotten nicer?” Waters said of his films, warm to the subject. “No! They’ve all been accepted over the years, which just meant American humor has changed for the better. I think we were used to embracing all kinds of movies when they were extreme and had style.”
If he’s right about that – and he very well could – that should make the curators’ lives easier as they have to decide over the next year which works to highlight, how much to put in gory, scatological or X-rated detail. present, and how much to leave to the memory and imagination of the viewers.
Among the items they’re considering: the barf bags, handed protectively to members of the public for “Pink Flamingos” displays. The handheld camera that Waters used in “Eat Your Makeup” to film the reenactment of the Kennedy assassination on his parents’ lawn, much to the horror of the neighbors, with Divine as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A list of live insects, including a German cockroach and a Dragonfly Nymph, that actor Johnny Knoxville was willing to put in his mouth for the 2004 film, “A Dirty Shame.”
And there’s the image of shoes painted by the glue-sniffing Baltimore foot stomper while serving jail time in “Polyester.” The scratch-and-sniff cards embedded with stomach-twisting scents that were handed over to customers at “Polyester” so they could experience the film with their noses as well as their eyes. That leg of lamb.
But those kinds of decisions are still months away. The exhibition is in the planning stage. Before arriving in Baltimore, the trustees, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, spent months searching the Waters archives at Wesleyan University, with considerable success. “In ‘Hairspray’ at the end, Debbie Harry wears this towering wig with this explosive,” Jaffe said. “We asked everyone and no one knew what happened to it. It turns out it was on Wesleyan the whole time. We found it in a box in a corner.”
“Dara and I started jumping up and down,” he said.
Here in the town that defined Waters’ career and life, they strolled through his house, which is itself a museum of sorts, before driving to his studio and office, pondering which of the 881 items on their tentative list. (“I’m a collector,” said Waters) deserves display.
“Jenny, we should measure this,” Jaffe said, pulling out a tape after seeing a “Maryland State Board of Censors” seal painted by a fan and sent to Waters in his office, a testimony from the time the board forced Waters to cut a scene from ‘Female Trouble’. Waters forced the censors to give him a receipt for the film clip he had cut from the reel and handed over.
When they arrived at his studio, the curators huddled with Waters to share one idea for the exhibition entrance.
“So we know you want people to be a little startled when they first come in,” Jaffe said, as Waters nodded. “And we know how much you love showmanship and gimmicks.” The idea, she said, would be to create the inside of a church, with a montage of Waters films flushing near the altar. The pews — “the movie seats” — would be outfitted with hidden buzzers to “give them a literal jolt” as they sat down, she explained.
“Can you make that work?” cried Waters. “That would be great!”
This exhibition may seem like a golden retirement watch for Waters, a belated acknowledgment of his contribution to cinema and culture over the decades. It’s been 18 years since Waters made his last movie – “A Dirty Shame”, which was rated NC-17. But he’s since been paid to write three “Hairspray” sequels, none of which were ultimately green-lighted. He has also gone on to develop a long-running Christmas movie for children called “Fruitcake”.
However, Waters hardly retires. He traveled across the country to promote his first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance”, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), and most recently had a cameo in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. He is participating in a new ad campaign for a Calvin Klein fashion line for Pride Month. He still has the pencil mustache, which he has been brushing up all day.
Museum officials could barely keep up with him as he clambered up and down the stairs of the four-story house, before jumping into a rented Cadillac (his own car is being driven by an assistant to Provincetown, where he will spend the summer) procession on the ride to his studio and his office.
In reality, Waters has become part of the nightlife scene. He’s a member of the Academy sponsored by the filmmaker David Lynch, a bit of an envelope pusher himself. (“And I take my duties seriously,” he said he was an Oscar judge. “I watch everything.”) “Hairspray” was rated PG. And in another sure sign of success, Waters is surrounded by a clique of assistants as he goes about his day. “I need three assistants to turn on a TV,” he said.
Kramer, who was named chief executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this week, presented the exhibit in March 2020. Waters agreed, and the trustees left for an exploratory visit that month. Because of the pandemic, this was Jaffa and He’s first time back to Baltimore. “I’ve kept this a secret for a long time,” Waters said.
The show will introduce the Waters canon to audiences unfamiliar with his work, but the base is likely to be his loyal followers, those who went to see his movies before being legitimized at festivals and revival homes, and who attended Camp John Walters, its sold-out adult summer camp in Kent, Conn.
“My audience was always humorous and they were always a little angry, but they were always movie buffs, they had a sense of humor about themselves and they joked about their own tastes in a way that they embraced flavors that others would be against,” he said. water. “My audience wasn’t just gay or straight; they were bikers, or they were all people who didn’t fit in; even in their own minorities they struggled, and that was my target audience.”
Waters has never lived in Los Angeles, but was a guest on the museum’s red carpet last year, sharing the spotlight with Cher and Lady Gaga. “I was just amazed – who would have ever thought all these things would happen?” asked Waters. He paused. “And the answer is – me.”