Taking Out the Trash with John Waters

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Ricki Lake, Johnny Depp, and Traci Lords in the 1990 film <em>Cry-Baby</em>

In his 50-year career, John Waters has created enduring staples of the midnight-movie circuit: high-camp shock humor. He discusses his work and his first-ever retrospective in the United States—Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The retrospective, September 5-14, includes all 12 of Waters’s features, including “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Serial Mom,” and his first two, “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs,” which introduced the world to his beloved, iconic muse Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead). 

Here are some highlights from the conversation: 

  • John Waters on his early films: “I didn’t even know there was editing when I made my first movie.”
  • On topics that are off limits for him: “I haven’t made too many Holocaust movies.”
  • On embracing who you are: “It’s feeling shame about things you can’t change and don’t have to change that causes mental illness.”
  • On developing Odorama in Polyester: “The fatal mistake [of technologies like Smell-o-Vision] was they only had good smells... Audiences, if they’re gonna smell something, want a bad smell.”
  • On what gave Divine such power on screen: “He used that rage [from being bullied] to make this character that was like Godzilla. It was like this humorous monster we created.”
  • On nudity in his films: “[It was] nudity that made most people yell: ‘Put it back on!’ Not that many people masturbated to my movies.”
  • On abortion: “Well, it’s a touchy subject, yes. I like abortion movies. I talk about in my spoken word show about the Abortion Film Festival I want to have, with all the greatest abortion movies. There’s many of them!”
  • On casting Patty Hearst in his movies: “She was sick of being famous for being a kidnap victim. It’s like being the Lindbergh baby who lived. Who wants that celebrity?”
  • On political confrontation: “I always think that you have to let the person you disagree with laugh and then they’ll listen to you.”