Where to begin with John Waters

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the Pope of Trash, John Waters.

Paul O’Callaghan

Hairspray (1988)

Hairspray (1988)

Why this might not seem so easy

With the paperback publication of his latest bestselling book Carsick, the continued international success of his hilarious one-man show This Filthy World, and a recent BFI retrospective in honour of his 50-year filmmaking career, John Waters’ profile is arguably as high as it’s ever been. Yet it’s been over 10 years since his last feature, A Dirty Shame (2004), debuted to a mixed critical response and disappointing box-office receipts.

Of course, Waters has for his entire career existed, and indeed thrived, outside of the mainstream. His films have always been divisive, and often deliberately so. Pink Flamingos (1972), which catapulted the director to cult notoriety, was famously denounced by Variety as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made”. Revisiting the film on its 25th anniversary in 1997, Roger Ebert went so far as to declare: “It should not be considered a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object.”

But while Waters’ passionately devoted fans have long revelled in the Pope of Trash’s ability to provoke and offend, such damning assessments of his work might, without the benefit of context, prove off-putting for newcomers. Add to this the fact that a good number of his films are tough to track down on DVD, Blu-ray or VOD, and that most have middling IMDB and Metacritic scores, and it’s all too easy to imagine a whole swathe of unenlightened viewers missing out on one of the funniest, filthiest, and most subversive bodies of work in cinema history. And that really would be a dirty shame.

The best place to start – Polyester

Polyester (1981) poster

Polyester (1981) poster

Waters’ creative partnership with Divine, the outrageous drag persona of Harris Glenn Milstead, is one of the all-time great actor-director pairings. Their legacy is a string of indecently entertaining, savagely countercultural comedies, and a seemingly endless supply of jaw-dropping behind-the-scenes anecdotes, many of which are recounted in the thoroughly enjoyable documentary I Am Divine. The 1981 comic melodrama Polyester is in many ways the perfect introduction to the pair. It’s every bit as outlandish and irreverent as their earlier films, but it’s an altogether slicker and more narratively coherent affair than those DIY provocations. As Waters said in a 2014 interview with The Dissolve, it was “when Hollywood and my underground met for the first time”. 

Divine delivers perhaps his finest performance as Francine Fishpaw, a frustrated housewife whose life begins to unravel in spectacular fashion upon discovering that her sleazy, porn-cinema-owner husband is having an affair. As she slides into alcoholism, her off-the-rails teenage daughter announces that she’s pregnant, while the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her foot-fetishist son begins to catch up with him. But a glimmer of hope emerges for Francine in the form of dashing suitor Todd Tomorrow, played gamely by 50s heartthrob Tab Hunter. Their formal introduction, at the site of a car pile-up which has left one of its victims decapitated, is as offbeat a meet-cute as you’re ever likely to witness. Polyester is sly, satirical and cine-literate, playfully riffing on the women’s weepy sub-genre popularised by Douglas Sirk, while offering a voyeuristic peak at the depravity that lurks beneath the serene surface of suburban America, anticipating to some degree the likes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

What to watch next

John Waters and Johnny Depp on the set of Cry Baby (1990)

John Waters and Johnny Depp on the set of Cry Baby (1990)

Female Trouble (1974) is without doubt the crowning achievement of Waters’ early career. Divine is front and centre again, this time as Dawn Davenport, a petty career criminal who finds herself an unlikely muse for a beauty salon owner and aspiring photographer, who is desperate to explore his deeply-held conviction that “crime and beauty are the same”. The plot essentially unfolds as a catalogue of increasingly extreme transgressions, from juvenile delinquency to child neglect, kidnapping, torture, facial disfigurement and filicide. But Waters mines almost every scene for absurdist hilarity, in a manner that at times recalls the Monty Python troupe at their most darkly mischievous. As a satire of celebrity culture it still feels remarkably potent, while Edith Massey excels as Dawn’s neighbour Ida, a part-time dominatrix unable to come to terms with the horrifying prospect that her hairdresser son might be straight.

Hairspray (1988) is in many ways the most shocking film in Waters’ oeuvre – a family-friendly box-office success, which spawned a smash-hit musical now performed in schools all over North America. Waters calls it his ‘Trojan Horse’. Like all of his films, it’s an anti-authoritarian, pro-equality celebration of outsiders, but this one masquerades as a sweet-natured, 60s-set high-school movie. Ricki Lake delivers a star-making turn as Tracy Turnblad, whose determination to win a regular slot on a twee Baltimore dance TV show sees her become an unwitting figurehead for the local civil rights movement. Divine gives a remarkably restrained performance as Tracy’s downtrodden mother. He tragically died shortly after the film’s premiere, though he at least lived long enough to see it earn him the best reviews of his career.

Waters has repeatedly declared Serial Mom (1994) the best of his films. It’s another pitch-black send-up of celebrity culture and social conservatism, which also expertly spoofs the true crime and slasher genres. Kathleen Turner is magnificent as Beverly Sutphin, a beguiling, husky-voiced domestic goddess driven to mass murder by the exasperating annoyances of her small-town friends and neighbours. A scene in which she batters an elderly lady to death with a leg of lamb, to the strains of ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie, is worth the price of entry alone.

Where not to start

To those familiar with Pink Flamingos only by reputation, this underground sensation might seem like an enticing jumping-off point. It’s so often discussed as the quintessential Waters experience, while its inherently silly premise – Divine, living in a trailer under the pseudonym Babs Johnson, dukes it out with a couple of baby traffickers to prove herself “the filthiest person alive” – seems to promise a heady dose of gleefully anarchic, knockabout fun.

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Pink Flamingos (1972)

But while the film is undoubtedly an essential component of any Waters viewing binge, it’s perhaps not the ideal way to pop your cherry. There’s plenty to enjoy, for sure – a memorably bizarre trip to a butcher’s shop; Massey’s endearingly eccentric turn as Babs’ egg-obsessed mother; a highly quotable climactic speech about the politics of filth. But this is all undercut by an alarmingly nihilistic streak, which makes for a tonally discordant, and at times profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience. In particular, there are scenes of sexual violence and incest which propel it towards the nightmarish ambience of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, which was released the same year.

And then, of course, there’s the infamous, vomit-inducing final scene, in which Divine eats freshly-laid dog faeces. In subsequent years, the actor repeatedly expressed frustration that this stunt had proven a career-defining move. While it propelled him to an instant fame of sorts, he felt it ultimately held him back from gaining the recognition he deserved as an artist – in the eyes of many, he would forever be the shit-eating drag queen. So if you’ve yet to succumb to the dubious pleasures of Pink Flamingos, you might want to enjoy some of his myriad other fine performances on their own terms, before his face becomes inextricably linked in your mind’s eye with one of the most nauseating moments in film history.

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