When John Waters unbelievably got famous in 1972 with Pink Flamingos, shot in a trailer court in weather so cold you can see the actors’ breath, an ironic passion for the pink flamingo was not widely shared. The star, the 300-pound transvestite Divine (Glenn Milstead), gets interviewed in the film by a sleazy tabloid about her cult heroism as “the filthiest person alive.” Divine replies, “It is a very minor cult right now, but one that is growing and growing, faster than you could imagine. I will be queen one day, and my coronation will be celebrated all over the world!”
Thanks entirely to the finale, wherein Divine munches dog doo on camera, she was indeed crowned filth queen and Waters dubbed the Prince of Puke, the Baron of Bad Taste, the Duke of Dirt, the Pope of Trash (the last by William Burroughs, apparently unacquainted with alliteration), and, Waters’ own personal favorite, the Anal Ambassador. Variety called Pink Flamingos “one of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made.” These sorts of insults won Waters a minor cult as an indie filmmaker, author, and go-to guy for prestige mags wanting copy on serial-killer art or Francis the Talking Mule.
Flash to next week, when Waters’ Hairspray, the musical adaptation of the 1988 film (his best), opens on Broadway. Today, he is the Queen of Clean, the Pope of Pop, the Sultan of Schmaltz, the Duke of Do-Goodery, and, I’ll bet my 401(k), the Baron of Broadway. The Seattle preview, plagued by glitches and scene restarts, was great anyway, a standing-ovation whoopathon. Tweaked and joke-re-engineered, Hairspray smells like a hit. Harvey Fierstein adds superior slapstick grace and 40-grit industrial sandpaper pipes to the role Divine created, flesh-mountain Baltimore hausfrau Edna Turnblad; Marissa Jaret Winokur out-perks the movie’s Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, who wins a Dick Clark-like TV dance contest and makes the world safe for integration and gals who shop at the Hefty Hideaway. The songs, by Scott Wittmanand South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut songwriter Marc Shaiman, are Technicolor 1962 pastiche that make “That Thing You Do” sound pale (though they still can’t top the echt-’60s originals on the Hairspray flick’s soundtrack).
So how did a guy who once cast Divine in a remake of the Zapruder film win the hearts of muddlecrass America? He didn’t keep up with the Joneses—he dragged them down to his level. Everybody gets pink flamingos now. Waters anticipated SouthPark, Austin Powers, Jim Carrey the Talking Ass, and the whole modern proud-to-be-taste-free pantheon.
While the culture was catching up with him, Waters was canny enough to ease up on the camp factor on the road to Main Street bigtime. You can only go so far with vérité blow jobs, outsider inside jokes, and campy casting. To go all the way, he had to shed the likes of Kathleen Turner, Tracy Lord, Patty Hearst, and yes, even Divine, whose finest hour turned out to be his male gangster performance in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (1985). Waters watered down the gay épater les bourgeoises outrages, switched from once-250-pound Ricki Lake to barely bulging Winokur, and turned real turds into scentless plastic replicas in the Har-De-Har Hut (the gag store run by Edna Turnblad’s husband in Hairspray).
He foreswore shock for feel-good schlock, and protopunk nihilism for fond boomer nostalgia. His ghastly, lurid early color schemes (an attempt to compensate for $10,000-budget film technology) gave way to Hairspray’s million-dollar hues, as delectable as the Necco wafers on which they’re based. (Waters used to be so thrifty that when a scene called for necrophilia with chickens, the cast cooked and ate them afterwards.) Waters also hired talents to make up for his deficiencies: Thomas “The Producers” Meehan and Mark O’Donnell, the world’s greatest incompetent-draughtsman cartoonist, buff up Hairspray’s book to a shinier gloss than he ever could, and the Tony Awards’ usual suspect Jack O’Brien directs with a far smoother hand.
The plot remains the same from Pink Flamingos to Hairspray: Despised good-hearted outsiders defiantly make a virtue of their weirdness and take over the world by sheer force of style. Only now the outsiders steer clear of necrophilia with real chickens. Their causes are the unexceptionable: teen freedom to dance to “jungle music,” date interracially, and commit “hair-don’ts.”Hairspray’s liberalism is about as bold as “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” in South Pacific.
Yet Waters didn’t really sell out his pariah principles in the process. He sneaks in worthy subversion around the edges: “Timeless to Me,” the show-slowing yet pleasing duet of Mr. and Mrs. Turnblad, does, after all, feature two men dancing to endless love as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Waters’ trip to the center of the culture was easier than that of his more talented fellow Warhol-inspired outsider, Gus Van Sant. Van Sant’s demimonde heroes were so dark, druggy, and sexually outré that he had to lighten the load to attract Oscars. He couldn’t get away with the ruthless humor and etched-in-ice acting of To Die For (1995)—in the court of pop culture, excellence is no defense. So he sentimentalized his standard plot and scored with Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), earning the power to do scarier stuff like the J.T. LeRoy novel Sarah (currently in production). He must alternate his true creative self with a lesser (still impressive) one.
John Waters faced an easier task, because his outsiders were always, ultimately, just kidding. Sure, they staged explicit scenes of mother-son fellatio, but there was something oddly wholesome about it. You knew they were just a couple of guys having a blast breaking some rules; there was no psychodrama. We’re not talking River and Keanu plumbing the depths here. There are no depths in a John Waters romp. He’s not just the queen of clean—he’s the king of the Har-De-Har Hut.