BALTIMORE — John Waters was leading a delegation from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — in for the week from Los Angeles — on a tour of his home of 32 years, cluttered with film artifacts and kitschy curios and tucked behind trees on a quiet corner five miles from this city’s waterfront.
There was much to see: the electrical chair from his 1974 dark comedy, “Female Trouble” within the entryway. A birth certificate for Divine, the 300-pound cross-dresser who played the “filthiest person alive” in “Pink Flamingos,” hanging in a basement room piled with mementos. The mimeographed poster for the 1966 premiere of “Roman Candles,” retrieved from a stack of boxes.
“Hand me that leg of lamb,” Waters asked an assistant as two curators and the museum director followed him up the narrow stairs, through a doorway and into his cramped two-room home office — one room for “my writing and considering” and one for, as he put it, selling. He was offering for consideration a favourite artifact from his moviemaking profession: the (rubber) leg of lamb that Kathleen Turner used as a murder weapon in a very gruesome scene from “Serial Mom.”
For many years, Waters was famous for pushing the boundaries of taste back when there have been real boundaries of taste (enforced by entities like his one-time tormentor, the Maryland State Board of Censors), including the notorious final scene in “Pink Flamingos,” which involves dog excrement. William S. Burroughs called Waters the “Pope of Trash,” and he meant that as a compliment.
Next summer, Waters, who’s 76, is being honored by the establishment he has flamboyantly provoked for over 50 years. He shall be the topic of a sprawling 11,400-square-foot exhibition on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the museum celebrating Hollywood that opened last yr. With this exhibit, the Academy is making clear that its curatorial appetite goes beyond R2-D2 and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
This will not be easy. The Academy Museum has planted a flag as a family and tourist destination, which is just not precisely the John Waters fan base. Notwithstanding the name of the exhibition — “Pope of Trash,” in fact — Bill Kramer, the museum’s director, said an indication is perhaps put on the entryway to warn the young and the squeamish.
“We don’t need to do anything that may alienate our audiences,” Kramer said, pulling up a chair next to Waters in his lounge. “We’re going through the design process now, and thru that process, we are going to be sure that the exhibition is not going to be watered down, but can even be an exhibition that each one ages can experience.”
“Which is a challenge,” Waters interjected.
“Which is a challenge,” Kramer agreed.
Waters has come quite a distance since 1973, when Variety described “Pink Flamingos” as “one of the vile, silly and repulsive movies ever made.” His subsequent movies — “Polyester,” starring Tab Hunter; “Cry-Baby,” with Johnny Depp; and “Pecker,” with Patricia Hearst, to call a couple of — have change into cult favorites, some still drawing crowds at midnight showings. “Hairspray,” his 1988 comedy, became a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards. Now Waters will join the ranks of Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Godfather,” as the topic of an exhibition on the Academy museum.
“People will see irony in it, definitely,” said Waters. “My movies, actually at first, got no good reviews, were censored, but people all the time got here. Just crazy people got here.”’
“And did any of them get nicer?” Waters said of his movies, warming to the topic. “No! All of them got accepted through the years, which just meant American humor has modified for the higher. I believe that we got used to embracing every kind of movies in the event that they were extreme and had style about them.”
If he is true about that — and he thoroughly is perhaps — that ought to make life easier for the curators as they spend the following yr deciding which works to focus on, how much to present in gory, scatological or X-rated detail, and the way much to go away to viewers’ memories and imagination.
Among the many items they’re considering: The barf bags, protectively handed to audience members for showings of “Pink Flamingos.” The hand-held camera Waters utilized in “Eat Your Makeup” to film the re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination on his parents’ front lawn, to the horror of neighbors, with Divine playing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. An inventory of live bugs, a German cockroach and a Dragonfly Nymph amongst them, that the actor Johnny Knoxville was willing to place in his mouth for the 2004 film, “A Dirty Shame.”
And there may be the depiction of shoes painted by the glue-sniffing Baltimore foot stomper while serving prison time in “Polyester.” The scratch-and-sniff cards embedded with stomach-turning odors that were handed to patrons at “Polyester” so that they could experience the film with their noses, in addition to their eyes. That leg of lamb.
But those kinds of selections are months away. The exhibition is within the planning stages. Before arriving in Baltimore, the curators, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, spent months combing through the Waters archives at Wesleyan University, with considerable success. “In ‘Hairspray,’ at the top, Debbie Harry is wearing this towering wig that has this explosive device,” Jaffe said. “We asked everyone and nobody knew what happened to it. It seems it was at Wesleyan the entire time. We found it in a box in a corner.”
“Dara and I began jumping up and down,” said He.
Here in the town that has defined Waters’s profession and life, they traipsed through his house, itself something of a museum, before driving to his studio and his office as they considered which of the 881 items which have made their preliminary list (“I’m a hoarder,” Waters said) merits display.
“Jenny, we should always measure this,” Jaffe said, taking out a tape after spotting a “Maryland State Board of Censors” seal painted by a fan and sent to Waters in his office, a sworn statement to the time the board forced Waters to chop a scene from “Female Trouble.” Waters made the censors give him a receipt for the snippet of film he cut off the reel and handed over.
Once they arrived at his studio, the curators huddled with Waters to share one idea for the entryway to the exhibition.
“So we all know that you just want people to get a little bit of a shock after they first walk in,” Jaffe said, as Waters nodded. “And we understand how much you’re keen on showmanship and gimmicks.” The thought, she said, can be to create the within a church, with a montage of Waters movies spooling near the altar. The pews — “the movie seats” — can be equipped with hidden buzzers to “give them a literal shock” as they sat down, she explained.
“Are you able to make that work?” Waters exclaimed. “That may be great!”
This exhibition may look like something of a gold retirement look ahead to Waters, a belated recognition of his contribution to cinema and culture over the many years. It has been 18 years since Waters made his last movie — “A Dirty Shame,” which was rated NC-17. But he has since been paid to write down three sequels to “Hairspray,” none of which ultimately received a studio green light. He has also continued to develop a long-gestating children’s Christmas movie called “Fruitcake.”
Waters is hardly retiring, though. He has been traveling the country promoting his first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), and recently had a cameo in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s in a latest promoting campaign for a Calvin Klein fashion line for Pride Month. He still has the pencil mustache, which he freshened up throughout the day.
Museum officials could barely sustain with him as he clambered up and down the steps of the four-story house, before jumping right into a rented Cadillac (his own automotive is being driven by an assistant to Provincetown, where he’ll spend the summer) to guide a cavalcade on the drive to his studio and his office.
In fact, Waters has change into a part of the entertainment establishment. He’s a member of the Academy, sponsored by the filmmaker David Lynch, himself a little bit of an envelope-pusher. (“And I take my duties seriously,” he said of being an Oscar judge. “I watch every thing.”) “Hairspray” was rated PG. And in one other sure sign of success, Waters is surrounded by a coterie of assistants as he moves through his day. “I want three assistants to activate a TV,” he said.
Kramer, who this week was named the chief executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, proposed the exhibition in March 2020. Waters agreed, and the curators headed out for a scouting visit that month. Due to pandemic, this was the primary time Jaffe and He have been back to Baltimore. “I’ve kept this secret for a very long time,” Waters said.
The show will introduce the Waters canon to audiences unfamiliar together with his work, however the base is prone to be his loyal followers, those who went to his movies before they were legitimized in festivals and revival houses, and who attended Camp John Waters, his sold-out adult summer camp in Kent, Conn.
“My audience was all the time humorous and so they were all the time just a little indignant, but they were all the time movie buffs, that they had a humorousness about themselves and so they made fun of their very own taste in a way they embraced tastes that others can be against,” Waters said. “My audience was not only gay or straight; it was bikers, or it was all those that didn’t slot in; even in their very own minorities that they had trouble, and there was my target market.”
Waters has never lived in Los Angeles, but was a guest on the red-carpet opening of the museum last yr — sharing the highlight with Cher and Lady Gaga. “I used to be just amazed — who would have ever thought all these items would occur?” Waters asked. He waited a beat. “And the reply is — me.”