John Waters Looks for Trouble

Filmmaker John Waters is still looking to make people laugh uncomfortably—this time in the art world

By Alexandra Wolfe (Weekend Confidential, Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2015)

John Waters (Allison Michael Orenstein for The Wall Street Journal/Grooming by Mara Schiavetti for Cloutier/Remix)

John Waters (Allison Michael Orenstein for The Wall Street Journal/Grooming by Mara Schiavetti for Cloutier/Remix)

“I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been in jail once.”- John Waters

“Have you ever been arrested?” filmmaker John Waters asks me. “I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been in jail once.” When neither I nor anyone from the photo crew with me in Mr. Waters’s Manhattan apartment admits to having been arrested, he exclaims, “Squares!”

The controversial artist has been arrested four times, once for “conspiracy to commit indecent exposure” while filming his first feature film, “Mondo Trasho,” in Baltimore in 1969. His next film, “Pink Flamingos,” was banned in Hicksville, N.Y., in the early 1970s for its sexually explicit content.

Four decades later, Mr. Waters, 68, is finding it much more difficult to get into trouble. As the writer and director of cult indie films such as “Hairspray” (1988), “Cry-Baby” (1990) and “Cecil B. DeMented” (2000), he must confront the troubling fact that some of his work is now considered mainstream.

Still, Mr. Waters’s apartment retains some hints of his bad-boy behavior. Amid the traditional décor of Oriental carpets and dark wood, a lifelike stuffed dog (a piece of taxidermy) lies on the floor. A nearby wall features a toilet paper roll, only with chiffon hanging down instead of paper. “I miss being hated,” he says, sitting at his dining room table.

It’s been more than a decade since Mr. Waters released his last film. He has kept busy with other projects, including performances, artwork and books. This weekend, he opens a new show of his photographs and sculptures at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. Titled “Beverly Hills John,” it satirizes the worlds of film, art and literature.

'Beverly Hills John,' (2012 Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. New York © John Waters)

“Beverly Hills John” (2012 Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. New York © John Waters)

In one heavily Photoshopped image, he gives himself an extreme face-lift. Lassie gets the same treatment, pointing to a new frontier of plastic surgery for pets. And he makes fun of art’s commercial culture with pieces such as “Did Not Sell,” an assembly of red stickers spelling out the words of the work’s title. The show “covers sexual tastes, race and everything that’s a hot button,” he says. “I try to make you laugh uncomfortably.”

He jokes that landing roles in two film franchises would make his career complete—one a horror series and one for children. “I want to be in the next ‘Final Destination’ movie and in the next ‘Chipmunk’ movie, and those are the only things in my whole career I want left,” he says. “I was in a Woody Allen movie, and I was in a Chucky movie, so what more do I want?”

Growing up in Baltimore, Mr. Waters was fascinated by gory crime scenes and would have his mother drive him to junkyards so that he could look at car wreck remains. “I liked villains,” he says. “I was interested in behavior I couldn’t understand, and I still am.”

His parents, he says, were supportive about his career, if hesitant. They wished he had made different kinds of movies, he remembers, but as his films started getting more positive reviews, they grew more accepting. When the Broadway adaptation of his film “Hairspray” won eight Tony awards in 2003, “they were really happy,” he says.

His main residence is still in Baltimore, where he keeps a library of more than 8,000 books. “Baltimore inspires me because it has the cutest, funniest people and a great sense of humor.” When a travel magazine credited the city with having the least attractive people in the country, his reaction was, “They just didn’t understand style.”

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