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The Divine John Waters Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

76-year-old ‘Hairspray’ filmmaker reflects on his first novel ‘Liarmouth,’ 50th anniversary of ‘Pink Flamingos’ and what else he has up his perfectly tailored sleeve

Director John Waters during the presentation of the Rizoma Film Festival at the Casa de la Panaderia, June 7, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. RIZOMA is an international festival that combines film, art, music and conferences whose aim is to support new voices in Spanish and Spanish-language cinema. It will be held from November 15 to November 21, 2022.
Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via AP

Happy 50th birthday, Pink Flamingos. Director John Waters, 76, is enjoying the once-shocking film’s newfound respectability — acceptance last year into the National Film Registry, alongside Casablanca and Citizen Kane, and its new Criterion 4K restoration. And he’s also making news for the release of his recent novel, Liarmouth, and the “The Pope of Trash,” a major exhibition coming next year to the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. In fact, Waters is moderately shocked at trading notoriety for mainstream adoration at this stage in the game.

The nattily dressed so-called Pope of Trash (aka Duke of Dirt and Prince of Puke) told AARP all about it during Massachusetts’ Provincetown International Film Festival, which showcased the still shocking Pink Flamingos, a tale of murderous Baltimore mayhem starring the legendary late drag queen Divine. His reaction to his “new respectability” is bemused, considering that “the film is probably worse than it’s ever been, in today’s standards.”

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A film that’s still subversive after 50 years

​While it’s wonderful to be considered the elder statesman of filth, Waters is genuinely moved. “I’m greatly honored that all these things have happened with no irony. But the movie itself — with all of today’s political correctness and everybody being so touchy about everything — is probably even more hideous than it ever was.” He’s been touring with the film, where the audience is the youngest it’s ever been, he says. He often asks: “How many people here are seeing it for the first time?” More than half always raise their hands.

Divine stars in "Pink Flamingos.
Divine stars in "Pink Flamingos."
Courtesy Everett Collection

​Waters finds this — and the fact that the movie still plays to an audience — amazing in a good way. “Pink Flamingos wasn’t ever supposed to just shock. It was supposed to make you shocked — and to make you laugh about it. And people still do laugh.”

​Although it may sometimes feel that the movie rose out of the 1970s pop cultural ooze, like Venus from her shell, the filmmaker says he “was influenced by art films and, because they broke all the censorship laws, by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman and all that. And by underground movies like those of Andy Warhol. I made exploitation films for art theaters. That’s what mine were, and they still are.”

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Hitchhiking cross-country at 66 and publishing his first novel at 76

​But Waters’ focus isn’t in the rearview mirror; the auteur habitually challenges himself. This spring he published his first novel, Liarmouth, a funny and profane “feel-bad romance” about the adventures of imperious suitcase thief Marsha Sprinkle, which climaxes in Provincetown.

​“I’m 76,” Waters says. “That’s not middle age. I’m not going to be 152, no matter how optimistic I can be. I wrote a novel for the same reason I hitchhiked across the country when I was 66 years old. The same reason I took LSD again at 70. To test myself. And I’m not sorry I did all three.”

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​And for an experienced artist, the new form was anything but a breeze. “Writing anything’s scary,” he says. “You have to go in there and do it every day. And then you have to go through the terror of showing it to someone. Especially this one — it could have gone either way because it’s pretty nuts.”

Can’t stop, won’t stop

​More adventures await. The Fourth of July weekend will find him hosting Mosswood Meltdown, Oakland, California’s annual two-day punk festival that attracts up to 8,000 headbangers from age 20 to 80. In September, there’s the sold-out Camp John Waters in Kent, Connecticut. Add to that the 20-city tour of his holiday one-man show, “A John Waters Christmas,” plus more writing in the works. Says Waters: “I’ve never been this busy in my entire life.”

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​Raise the specter of retirement, and he shakes his head no. “If I retired, I feel like I’d drop dead — because I’m so used to travel, and it’s just what I do. I like my work. That’s the thing. If I had a job for 50 years I did not like, I would be glad to retire. But still, I don’t jump up every day, thinking, Oh good, I’m gonna write. I’m not that crazy. I don’t know anyone who’s really a writer that thinks that.”

​Where does he get his volcanic energy? Waters responds: “People always ask that. I don’t know. Because of a fear that someone will take your place?”

Impossible!

In 2023, Waters will be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with his own shiny sidewalk star — beside the likes of Daniel Craig, Marilyn Monroe and Lena Horne. The public will then be able to walk on Waters.

Shocking. And divine!

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