America’s Filth Elder John Waters Isn’t Slowing Down
Conventional wisdom holds that 2021’s much anticipated hot vax summer never happened, but John Waters knows different. Cinema’s Pope of Trash rents a home in Cape Cod’s queer party destination Provincetown every summer, and last year “it was like the movie The Swarm, but with gay people,” Waters laughs. Although the season marked the filmmaker, author and cultural icon’s 57th in Ptown, the convergence was like nothing he had seen before. “I hid,” he says, writing in the mornings and spending afternoons on the beach.
After hundreds of mostly unvaccinated people contracted the Delta variant, it was newsworthy in July. But Waters blames the state government’s abrupt transition out of masking-and-dancing mode, not his rowdy neighbors, for the outbreak. A self-described “filth elder” who spent his 20s making movies transgressive enough to send his parents’ generation into conniptions, the Pink FlamingosThe auteur feels for the young man, who knows all too well his libidinous and decadent urges. “I feel bad for them,” he says. “They’re quarantined and aroused, horny and lonely. That’s not fair when you’re young.”
Waters is now 75 years old and has no need to be a slave of hormones. He just hung in there and endured the worst days of the pandemic. He tells me that he has never been busier, and he does so via videochat from Baltimore, his hometown.
Dressed mutedly in a dark jacket, turtleneck and scarf that offset a backdrop papered with the bright, glittery character portraits that fans mail him via his local bookstore and press into his hands at events, he has ostensibly logged on to promote his guest appearance in the fourth season of Prime Video’s The Amazing Mrs. Maisel (premiering Feb. 18). The man in the background Hairspray Cry-BabyWaters enjoyed shooting in Manhattan and it was a great addition to midcentury comedy. “The whole Village was shut down,” he enthuses. “Behind us were vintage buses, cars, hundreds of extras in costumes. It was old-school Hollywood, in a great way.” But his character is still being kept under wraps, and anyway, he has so many upcoming projects to discuss that he’s had to make himself a cheat sheet.
Waters has already secured 2022 bookings for just two months. He has an opening art show in Baltimore this March. He’ll celebrate his birthday in April, with spoken-word dates in New York and Atlantic City. (He’s titled his pandemic-era show False Positive.) He releases his largest release of the year in May, his debut novel. Liarmouth, for which he’s planning a live book tour, COVID-willing. From there, it’s a marathon of hosting gigs, charity events (he’s staging a gourmet dinner at the P-Town dump to benefit the local film festival), his annual fan confab Camp John Waters in September and a couple dozen performances of his show A John Waters Christmas.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you retire?’” Waters scoffs. “I’d drop deadIf I were to retire. I jump out of bed every day to go to work.” After six decades of productive perversity, slowing down would pretty much require shutting off his brain. “I have to think up something weird every morning!”
Maybe it isn’t so surprising that Waters is more in demand than ever. In some depressing ways, we live in an America his movies anticipated—with charlatans, extremists and malignant narcissists crowding the public square, as constant altercations break out between a repressive far right and a radical-chic far left. The same day I spoke with Waters, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene gave a bizarre interview decrying “Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police” that immediately went viral. She meant Gestapo.) If you didn’t know better, you might think Greene was a character played by Mink Stole, the Waters lifer who specializes in snippy villains.
The difference between his outré work and the hysterical pitch of our current public discourse—besides, of course, that no one’s drafting laws based on his absurdism—is that his intentions are always playful and good-natured. Waters likes to poke fun at what he still calls “political correctness,” not because he’s joined the self-serious war on wokeness or cancel culture or any other term pundits invoke to protest the march of progress, but because he thinks humor is the best route to social change. He wants to see liberals form mock “pronoun police” forces and hand out tickets. You want to make insurrectionists feel like they are in control of Congress halls? “Maybe We should form fecal flash mobs,” he chuckles.
LiarmouthIt is extremely importantIn this punkish tradition. The road novel features a Watersian-esque attraction at each rest stop. It follows Marsha Sprinkle, a self-described criminal mastermind, and her faithful accomplice, as they make their way up the East Coast. (Scammers may be trendy right now, but they’ve been a staple of Waters’ oeuvre since 1970’s Multiple ManiacsCast his friend, the drag queen Divine as the clown-show impresario that robs audience members at gunpoint. “I think it’s the most insane thing I’ve ever written,” Waters says.
If Liarmouth seems merciless in its skewering of political correctness, he notes that the criticism is intended “in a good way, because I secretly think I Please read the following: politically correct.” Which is to say, he shares the inclusive aims of today’s activists, minus the appetite for sanctimonious Twitter threads. (Waters’ ubiquity does not extend to social media.) A pioneer of LGBTQ representation—though one whose LGBTQ characters are just as deranged as their straight counterparts—he had a suite of gender-neutral bathrooms named in his honor at the Baltimore Museum of Art this past fall. Elizabeth Coffey is a trans-pioneer who was featured in Flamingos and 1974’s Problems for FemalesAt their dedication, he was honored as the guest-of-honor. “She came down and cut the ribbon and used the bathroom for the first time to christen it,” Waters recalls. “Officials were there, all the news teams. It was an event that really did say something about a serious subject, but in a way that brought everybody together.”
An optimistic read on why everyone wants a piece of Waters these days, and one I’m inclined to embrace, would be that changing times have revealed the humanism underlying his grotesque spectacles. As the aura of transgression surrounding even his earliest, most extreme movies fades, what remains is the filmmaker’s endless fascination with his fellow man. What kind of person wouldn’t adore Tracy Turnblad, the plucky, plus-sized, integrationist heroine of Hairspray? But Waters also has affection for Divine’s monstrously vain Dawn Davenport, from Problems for FemalesShe is driven by a passion for beauty and ends up in an electric chair.
“Everybody I write about, even the crazy people in Liarmouth—I love them,” he says. “I want to spend time with them. And I’m amazed at human behavior. That’s what keeps me going: to try to understand why people act the way they do. If I didn’t do this,” by which I assume he means make art in any and every feasible medium, “I’d be a good shrink.”
Waters made it a priority to show kindness in his private life. For years he’s been campaigning for the release of Leslie Van Houten, the reformed and remorseful 72-year-old who has spent half a century in prison for her role in the Charles Manson murders, and whose favorable parole-board decisions have been repeatedly overturned by gubernatorial veto. (She was most recently approved for parole in November, pending California Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature.) “When the worst thing that can happen to you does,” Waters writes in his 2019 book Mr. Know-It-All, “I try to be a friend.”
Would it be fair to say that, throughout a career commonly associated with the gross and the subversive, Waters’ guiding principle has always been radical acceptance? “Completely!” he exclaims, energized. “I try not to judge people’s behavior because I don’t know the backstory.”
For those of us who grew up loving him, it’s gratifying to see Waters, in his filth-elder era, enjoy the same open-mindedness he’s promoted for decades. Waters is a beloved radical who has been adored by cinephiles, cultists, and the young children who flock to him at airports after his appearance in An Unexpected Journey. Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. Waters was a regular in the last season of millennial madcap self-parody. Search Party; one of its stars, John Early, told Seth Meyers that the director “created the entire sensibility that the show lives in.” Waters says he’s flattered by the comparison—and he gets it. “Millennium Maniacs would be a great title” for the show, he jokes, pointing out that his character, who sells babies to gay couples, parallels a story line in Flamingos. (Once prohibited in many countries, the movie entered National Film Registry last January and will receive a 50th-anniversary Criterion Collection Reissue in June.
Waters loves to see young people laugh at the excesses and pieties in their generation. “I’ve always made fun of rules,” he says. “In the ’60s I made fun of hippie rules, even though I was in that world and my audience was in that world. But there’s always extreme people, in all worlds, that can laugh about it. And I think they’re the survivors.”