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John Waters: His Ten Best Films

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By Joe Ferrelli

There is really no other American filmmaker who embodies the concept of “independent” cinema as John Waters does. Unrestrained by major studio interference, Waters gathered together a group of “actors” or stock company if you will, that included friends from school (Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller, Susan Lowe, Pat Moran, and Vince Peranio) and local “color” such as barmaid Edith Massey, to create his oh-so-unique brand of films. Many of these people worked with Waters for decades and some continue to do so. This thematically mirrors the ultimate “experience” of seeing a John Waters movie: one of shared communal space with friends, family and mostly other strangers who gather together, particularly at midnight movies of the past, and embark upon a bumpy, dizzying, combination of cinematic horror show and joy ride. Though screenings today are primarily limited to home viewing, do yourself a favor and watch Waters films with at least one other person for full enjoyment.

To celebrate his 74th birthday, I have compiled a top 10 list of his movies to guide you through a veritable lifetime of work by an American original.

10.

MONDO TRASHO

This early Waters film, while rough and crude, is of particular interest because it marks the last of Waters’ films that was basically silent with no sync sound except for the constant musical soundtrack that accompanies the entire film. Everything from contemporary pop and hits of the day to classical symphonic interludes are featured as Waters tries to find his “voice” without any dialogue. Another highlight of the production includes the fact that Waters and company were arrested for indecent exposure for filming a public nude scene (male) at Johns Hopkins University. As Waters himself has proclaimed, the film is too long. Indeed this one may be slow going for some with some very long scenes of podophelia (toe sucking and foot worship) but for Waters completists it is a must see. Just a warning though (which seems somehow contrary to the act of willingly viewing a John Waters movie in the first place) you might want to skip over the first two or three minutes of the film which consists of some graphic footage of real chickens being decapitated with an axe. My understanding is that the chickens were later cooked and eaten.

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The future Prince of Puke, the early years.

9.

POLYESTER

Eager to pay homage to William Castle’s film “gimmicks”, Waters created Odorama (complete with scratch and sniff cards) to accompany the film. This was Waters’ first “mainstream” film with former Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter playing Todd Tomorrow opposite Divine’s Francine Fishpaw. Francine is a miserable housewife with a porno theater owning husband and two delinquent children. Only her best friend, elderly debutante Cuddles (Edith Massey) sympathizes with her until Todd sweeps her off her feet. But are his intentions honorable? I’ll give you one guess! This film may be of special interest to punk rock fans as it features a performance by Dead Boys/Lords of The New Church front man, the late Stiv Bators.

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The sweet smell of excess. The original desperate housewife, Francine Fishpaw (Divine).

8.

EAT YOUR MAKEUP

This extremely rare and rarely screened early Waters’ film (I’ve only seen it in an art gallery as part of a Waters exhibit) concerns models who are forced to “model themselves to death.” The piece de resistance here is a re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination with Divine as a frantic Jackie Kennedy. If you ever get a chance to see this one, by all means go out of your way to do so.

7.

MULTIPLE MANIACS

Waters’ first film with synch sound, Multiple Maniacs, which features all of Waters favorites (Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey), revolves around The Cavalcade of Perversion. Some truly jaw dropping scenes include Divine being raped by a 15-foot-long lobster and also getting a “rosary job” by Mink Stole, filmed in a church, and accompanied by all the stations of the cross intercut. This one has to be seen to be believed!

Mink Stole and Divine. We’ll never look at a rosary the same way again.

6.

SERIAL MOM

Waters’ glossy take on a murderous mother (Kathleen Turner) who will stop at nothing to protect and defend her family. Featuring a great musical interlude by hard rock group L7, This film has great production values and an unforgettable, classic scene involving Turner, Patty Hearst and a pair of white shoes worn after Labor Day. Just remember, fashion does not change!

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A notorious cereal spiller and her family.

5.

CRY-BABY

Wanting to basically make an Elvis musical, Waters enlisted scores of former celebrities (Joe Dellasandro, Joey Hearherton, David Nelson, Patty Hearst, Troy Donahue, Susan Tyrell, and former adult film actress Tracey Lords) along with Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake to tell the story of the Squares vs. The Drapes, complete with 1950s soundtrack (all dubbed). A basic all around “feel good” film, Cry-Baby was not a big hit for Waters, but did manage to spawn a short-lived Broadway musical.

4.

HAIRSPRAY

After the success of the relatively tame Polyester, Waters made an ode to his childhood Baltimore that incorporated a plot line concerning the integration of an all-white Baltimore tv show. Divine plays Edna Turnblad, a veritable “straight role” of a working class mother (“I have loads of laundry to do and my diet pill is wearing off!”) whose hefty daughter Tracy (Ricki Lake) rises to the top of the Corny Collins dance show. Standouts include Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as the scheming parents of Tracy’s rival Amber. Cameos include Pia Zadora and The Cars’ Rick Ocasek as a beatnik couple who recite Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Perhaps Waters most successful film, it became a beloved Broadway musical and then a film musical. If you’ve only ever seen the musical film version with John Travolta, do yourself a favor and check out this original version.

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Welcome to the sixties, Mama. Ricki Lake and Divine in their Hefty Hideaway couture.

3.

DESPERATE LIVING

My first viewing came in the early 1980s, in downtown Buffalo, in a run-down, now-defunct triplex. If Pink Flamingos was a precursor to punk, this “fairy tale” of a tyrannical Queen (Edith Massey), her enemy-loving daughter (Mary Vivian Pearce), and on the run murderesses/lovers (Mink Stole and Jean Hill), definitely anticipates grunge. With no Divine (other commitments) or David Lochary (whose extreme drug use had allegedly alienated him from the director) this film was not as successful as Waters others. It does have some great sets (the whole town of Mortville) and over the top performances by Susan Lowe as the wannabe transsexual Mole and former burlesque star Liz Renay, as her lesbian partner.

2.

FEMALE TROUBLE

I saw Female Trouble for the first time on a visit to NYC in 1982 at a Times Square grindhouse theater, the perfect venue. Dawn Davenport (Divine) seeks a life of “crime as fashion” after having acid thrown in her face by rival Ida (Edith Massey). The mantra here is the ultimate sacrifice: Who Wants to Die For Art? Waters’ regular and good friend David Lochary plays a beauty salon owner with a taste for carnage. (Tragically, Lochary died while on PCP with conflicting reports of death ranging from bleeding from a suicide attempt to a drug freak out to bleeding to death after falling through a glass table.) Waters uses Divine in a double role where he not only plays Dawn, but also plays the one night stand Earl who gets Dawn pregnant. Mink Stole is priceless as Taffy, Dawn’s car accident obsessed daughter who responds to her step father’s creepy oral sex request with “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” Some stark scenes of an incarcerated Dawn (filmed in a real prison) lead to a sobering finale.

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Not on Christmas, Dawn!

1.

PINK FLAMINGOS

This was my introduction to John Waters which has remained at the top of the heap for many reasons. A true experience, the midnight screening I saw was held at The University of Buffalo at full capacity. Upon my first viewing I thought it was vile, gross and way over the top. I did, however, go back to see it again the next night! The mighty Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) leads a pack of eccentrics and vagabonds in a battle with Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary, complete with fire engine red and blue hair) over the title “The Filthiest Person Alive.” The adorable, charming Edith Massey plays Divine’s mentally challenged mother Edie the Egglady and I have never been able to look at an omelet in the same way since. Throw in a singing asshole, non-simulated oral sex, an unintentional (but real) chicken decapitation, a sex slave ring whereby women are forcibly impregnated and the babies are sold to lesbian couples, and that forever infamous, never to be topped final scene starring Divine and some poodle poop, and you have one of the most shockingly original films in cinema history. Definitely a precursor to the punk rock scene!

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The “filthiest people (dead or) alive”? Raymond (Lochary) and Connie Marble (Stole).

So happy birthday to the Prince of Puke and the Pope of Trash, a true American original! Hopefully his films will be discovered and embraced by future generations who may scratch their heads at this strange aberration of “smut” peddler and artiste. Just one question for Mr Waters — any chance will you ever complete the aborted “Wizard of Oz” themed “Dorothy: Kansas City Pothead? I guess anything is possible.

(Writer Joe Ferrelli received his Master’s in Critical-Cultural Studies with a minor in Film and for his thesis project, he founded Filmout San Diego: An LGBT Film Festival, which just celebrated its 21st Anniversary. After relocating to NYC, he managed an East Village cinema, The Pioneer, and performance space The Den of Cin. He has since returned to Buffalo, NY with his longtime husband Tom and appears as a guest speaker for various events at The Screening Room.)

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