How John Waters Changed Cinema Through "Bad Taste"
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
The Baron of Bad Taste, The Duke of Dirt, The Wizard of Sleaze, The Pope of Trash, are only some of the titles used to describe famous American director, John Waters. Ever since, the mid 1960's, Waters has served as an icon for gay cinema and cult classics. He is responsible for some of the most notorious and controversial American films to this day. The first impression most people get from watching Waters' films are disgust but what a lot of people don't realize is the genius originality they possess and just how much courage it took to make them.
John Waters was born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 22nd, 1946, to an upper-middle class Roman Catholic, conservative family and was raised in the suburb of Lutherville. Waters' interest in the theatrical entered his life relatively early and was shaped by films such as Charles Walters' Lili, and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz. As a child he would put on his own violent interpretations of Punch and Judy puppet shows for local children's birthday parties, which would serve as a precursor to his later film work. Even at such a young age, Waters' passion for movies was evident, he used to watch R-rated films in his local drive in at a distance, through a pair of binoculars when he was too young to get in. Waters' upbringing in Baltimore would soon prove vital to his career since all of his films take place in his home town and it is also where he met his frequent collaborator, Glenn Milstead, better known as drag icon, Divine. Together, the two would go on to change the world of film and the public's perception of true depravity.
In 1964, John Waters made his first short film entitled, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, which was shot on 8mm film and had a budget of $30. Although the short has a ton of significance as Waters first film, its not widely available to the public due to the impracticality of 8mm projectors today and that the director believes it is "better reading about it than screening it." After high school, Waters finally left his native Baltimore to study film at New York University. However, despite being such a world renowned school for its film program, he found himself bored with the curriculum, finding it tedious. Waters did not want to be studying "high art" films like Battleship Potemkin, and his love for trashy B-films was not well-received in NYC. In 1966, the same year he made his short, Roman Candles, Waters was expelled from New York University after he was caught smoking marijuana and soon returned to his native Baltimore. Although this must have been devastating news at the time, there's no telling how different Waters' movies would've ended up if he stayed at NYU. The truth is, film school was simply not the place for the director, he wasn't meant to create average run-of-the-mill Hollywood pictures, but something much more unconventional.
After leaving school, John Waters continued to make his movies with Divine, eventually forming Dreamland Productions with other actors like Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mark Isherwood, and Mary Vivian Pearce, etc. Together they produced Mondo Trasho in 1969 followed by The Diane Linkletter Story and Multiple Maniacs in 1970. However, their most notorious endeavor would not come until two years later in the form of 1972's Pink Flamingos. The movie follows the life of eccentric criminal, Divine (or "Babs Johnson") after she is given the title of "trashiest person alive" in a tabloid magazine. Soon, her rivals Connie and Raymond Marble become envious of this title and attempt to overthrow her as the world's filthiest human. It is often cited as one of the single most controversial films of all time. Soon after its release, it was banned in several countries such as Switzerland, and Australia as well as certain parts of Norway and Canada. In the United States, the film has been given a rating of NC-17, which has also been given to other controversial films such as Harmony Korine's Gummo and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Daily Variety called it "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made."
Despite obtaining instant notoriety after its release, as well as having a measly budget of only $10,000, Pink Flamingos turned out to be a cult hit, grossing $7 million dollars in total, approximately seven hundred times its budget. To this day, the film lives in infamy for containing graphic content such as full nudity, violence, unsimulated sexual acts, the murder of a live chicken, as well as much more. However, despite the abundance of pure filth, one scene looms large above them all in terms of complete and utter trashiness. The final sequence of Pink Flamingos shows a small dog defecating on the street followed by Divine scooping up the poop with her hands and eating it. That's right, absolutely no special effects were used, Divine really ate fresh dog feces on camera. If that doesn't solidify you as the world's trashiest person, nothing will. According to Waters, "if someone puked it was like a standing ovation."
Whether or not you perceive Pink Flamingos as a brilliant cult classic or an exploitative visual dumpster fire is completely up to you but no matter what your personal opinion is, there is no doubting just how much of an impact the movie had on the industry as a whole. The project turned out to be an exercise in challenging film censorship laws and was arguably the filthiest picture to ever hit the big screen up until that point. Despite always having a cult following, Pink Flamingos remains just as polarizing as it was during its 1972 release. Much to the surprise of conservatives everywhere, the film currently holds an impressive score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes yet only a 47/100 on Metacritic. As well as being crucial to the film industry, Pink Flamingos has also left a lasting impact on the LGBT community as well. In 2016, Tasteofcinema.com labeled it "the most important queer film of all time" and there was even a challenge inspired by it and other Waters films on season 7 of Rupaul's Drag Race. The film also seemed to singlehandedly popularize the "midnight movie." In every sense of the word, Pink Flamingos is a perfect example of punk cinema, comparable to Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. It's genuinely shocking that a film this utterly disgusting was ever approved for a theatrical release. Because of this, John Waters could easily be considered the father of punk culture.
What a considerable amount of people might not know is that Pink Flamingos is not a standalone film, it is actually the first installment in John Waters' "Trash Trilogy." The next two installments being Female Trouble in 1974 and Desperate Living in 1977. While these movies do not share a story or characters, they are linked due to their explicit boldness and inclusion of legendary drag performer, Divine, in the first two. There is absolutely no doubt that John Waters' films would not be the same if not for his longtime collaborator Glenn Milstead, professionally known as Divine. His performances added so much life and character to any role he played. During a time where competitive drag pageants were so serious, Divine challenged not only the norms of everyday society but also the underground drag culture as well. During production, John Waters noticed that Divine had a lot of pent up anger within and encouraged him to channel it into his drag character, leading to some of the most iconic cult movie performances of all time. Divine became an opposite caricature of Hollywood leading ladies like Jayne Mansfield. At the time, people were only used to seeing dainty blonde bombshell actresses on screen, not a three hundred man in a red fishtail dress. John Waters and Divine's eccentric sense of style and filmmaking brought something to the public that they had never seen before. The most exemplary sequence in Pink Flamingos that Waters shot from a moving car, filming Divine walking down the street and the real reactions he garnered from average pedestrians. Although a minor scene with little plot significance, this sequence perfectly encapsulates everything about what made Waters and Divine artistic soulmates. While Divine was the one who caused all of the shock, Waters was the ideal person to bring his image to the masses and present it in a way that was so endlessly entertaining. While still being a brilliant director on his own, there is no telling just how different the career of John Waters would've ended up if it weren't for Divine. The last Waters production that Divine took part in was as Edna Turnblad in the now-famous, Hairspray, in 1988. This role led to a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Supporting Male as well as the status of cult legend. Tragically, Divine ended up passing away of a heart attack shortly after the release of Hairspray on March 7th, 1988 but his legacy still lives on, and his image has been forever immortalized through Waters' films.
Hairspray became the first mainstream hit from John Waters, grossing 8.8 million dollars worldwide and spawning an 8-time Tony winning Broadway musical. His once small circle of actors has since grown exponentially with A-list stars like Kathleen Turner, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Melanie Griffith being added to Waters' "filth empire." After watching the campy yet relatively tame Serial Mom, from 1994, it's difficult to imagine that this was the same creative mind who produced the ghastly Pink Flamingos two decades earlier. In 2018, Divine was forever immortalized in the form of a mural in Baltimore by revered artist, Gaia. The mural now stands as the crown jewel of the city's "gayborhood" and can be found at 106 E. Preston Street in Baltimore.
Before the 1960's and 70's there was almost nobody like John Waters. Along with the help of his crew at Dreamland Productions, he revolutionized the world of queer cinema and his influence still remains prominant to this day. His impressive, five decade long career has influenced a generation of filmmakers and artists and his legacy will continue to live in the hearts of cinema fans everywhere for years to come.