Poolside, in the dark, John Waters is explaining that his latest movie Cry-Baby isn’t commercial.
“It’s subversive. I’m trying to sneak in the back door,” says Waters, the director who turned bad taste into high art with Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho and Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. “I want to play shopping malls in Kansas and, at the same time, please my old audience.”
Waters’ aficionados revel in the Mariana Trench of trashiness. His most famous film, Pink Flamingos, climaxes with the 300-pound transvestite Divine eating poodle droppings to clinch the title of “The Filthiest Person Alive.” Waters’ Polyester was distributed with scratch ‘n’ sniff cards—eau de sweaty sneakers and flatulence—to enhance the visual experience. His Hag in a Black Leather Jacket features a Ku Klux Klansman marrying a black man and a white woman atop the roof of Waters’ parents’ house.
“It sounds a lot better than it is,” Waters comments. “As a high concept, it works. As a movie, it’s unwatchable.”
Waters, whom William Burroughs christened the Pope of Trash, emerged from the underground in 1981 with his suburban satire Polyester. It starred Divine as a harried housewife and Tab Hunter as her handsome boyfriend. Waters entered the mainstream in 1987 with his PG-rated Hairspray, a musical comedy about the integration of a televised teen dance show.
This weekend, Waters wades deeper into respectability with his juvenile delinquent musical comedy about the rift between the squares and the “drapes,” Baltimore parlance for greasers. Cry-Baby, which opened nationwide on Friday, is the tale of a good girl (Amy Locane) who wants to be bad, and Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), the bad boy who steals her heart. It’s a twisted tale of teen-age rebellion and the nightmarish world of charm school conformity.
“It’s all based in truth,” Waters says. “I found all these articles in the library: A Drape Glossary, A Reporter Goes to a Drape Party, The Drape Underground. They became the basis for my movie.”
Cry-Baby is produced by Ron Howard’s Imagine Films at a cost of $8-million, or more than all the budgets of Waters’ 10 previous movies combined. Like all of Waters’ films, it is set in Baltimore, the city he calls the “Hairdo Capital of the World.”
Cry-Baby, like Hairspray, revels in tackiness. One Drape’s mother makes an appearance in court, smoking, in an iron lung. Cry-Baby’s unmarried sister gives birth to her third child in the back seat of a speeding roadster during a game of “chicken.”
Yet, Cry-Baby isn’t offensive in the way Pink Flamingos and other low Waters marks have been.
“I like to make movies that appall people, but now I feel I don’t have to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer,” explains the 43-year-old Waters. “I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. Even then, my intent was never to shock people. It was to make them laugh.”
Waters, a rail-thin man with an even thinner moustache, says this with sincerity. He’s a trash-monger with a purpose. He parodies the extremes of American kitsch.
In addition to making movies, writing books and reading more than 50 periodicals each month, Waters takes particular joy in attending murder trials. He says the Hillside Strangler was a recent favorite. He also visits inmates, such as Manson groupie Leslie Van Houten, whom he feels is genuinely repentant about her actions. He also has taught a course called “How to Laugh at a Life Sentence” at a Maryland penitentiary.
Waters attended Patty Hearst’s bank robbery trial. He later met the kidnapped heiress at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and told her he wanted to cast her in one of his upcoming movies.
“She’s my idea of a goddess. I was obsessed with her. I still am. In a harmless way,” Waters says, sipping Chablis and ignoring the gawkers filing past his poolside table.
In Cry-Baby, Hearst plays a straight-arrow crossing guard married to David Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet. Their pairing recalls Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry, and Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek, in Hairspray.
Cry-Baby is Waters’ greatest casting coup. Former child porn star Traci Lords plays a flirtatious trailer park queen who’s actually a virgin. Joey Heatherton is married to evangelist Joe Dallesandro, a regular in Andy Warhol’s movies. Willem Dafoe makes a cameo as a prison guard. Polly Bergen is a charm school mistress. Rocker Iggy Pop is the boyfriend of Cry-Baby’s grandmother, Susan Tyrrell. Ricki Lake, the dancing fool of Hairspray, plays Cry-Baby’s sister.
Waters discovered Depp, of Fox’s 21 Jump Street, by scanning teen magazines and reading the National Enquirer. It’s his contention that society’s true cultural icons are featured in supermarket tabloids.
“It’s a dream cast. I got everyone I wanted except Mother Teresa,” Waters says. “She was too busy doing miracles.”
As he says this, two provocatively clothed women sashay to the table. They introduce themselves and ask Waters if he would like to accompany them to dinner elsewhere.
Waters, always the gentleman, thanks them for their invitation and declines. He pulls another toothpick from his lizard-skin case and slips it into his mouth. Toothpicks are a poor substitute for a four-pack-a-day KOOL habit.
“You know, the number of people who choke on toothpicks is an under-reported death statistic,” he says.
John Waters has always been strange. As a child growing up in Lutherville, Md., he had such a fascination with wrecked cars that Pat and John Waters Sr. would take him to junk yards for entertainment. In Catholic school, he would memorize the movie titles the nuns said would send him to hell and then cut classes to see them.
Waters filmed his first black-and-white feature in 1964, shortly after being booted from New York University for marijuana possession. Hag in a Black Leather Jacket was made for $80. It starred neighborhood cronies Mona Montgomery and Mary Vivian Pierce. Montgomery stole the film stock from a camera shop where she worked.
In Hag’s wake came films with such memorable titles as Eat Your Makeup (1968), Mondo Trasho (1969), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977).
Pink Flamingos, shot in 1972 for $12,000, brought Waters the notoriety he was seeking. New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby suggested Waters was the victim of “faulty toilet training.” The trade paper Variety branded Pink Flamingos “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”
Waters’ mother pleaded, “Can’t you make your movies nicer? Why don’t you make The Sound of Music?”
Waters and his mother later compromised.
“She never made me watch The Sound of Music and I’ve never made her watch Pink Flamingos,” he says. “Besides, why should I make my parents watch a movie they’re going to hate? I wouldn’t want my mother to like Pink Flamingos.”
Waters, however, is particularly proud of the movie: “It has offended four generations. It has created a genre unto itself.”
The director’s subversive outlook has been feted by the Museum of Modern Art, which showed Pink Flamingos for its 1976 salute to American humor. His scripts, scrapbooks and memorabilia recently were collected by Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. They now are stored in the school’s archives, along with the works of Frank Capra, Ingrid Bergman and Elia Kazan.
Someday, Wesleyan will inherit the electric chair that sits in the front hall of Waters’ Baltimore Tudor-style home. It will receive his Tylenol bottle bearing the same lot number as the capsules that killed seven people in Chicago in 1982. It will be bequeathed an oil painting that Waters commissioned from child killer Gertrude Baniszewski and one painted by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. It will receive Waters’ vast collection of plastic food, as well as his movie posters. Kitten With a Whip and I Hate Your Guts are among them.
Wesleyan will receive hundreds of costumes, including several worn by another of Waters’ neighborhood chums, Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine. Milstead’s performance in Pink Flamingos made him a star; every Waters film hence had a role for the hefty cross-dresser.
Milstead died of obesity-related heart failure in 1988, shortly after an acclaimed performance in Hairspray. His death ended an era in Waters’ career.
“I’ll never make another movie with a man playing a woman because I could never replace Divine,” Waters confides. “It would be sacrilegious.”
Cry-Baby is a notable departure, then, because it revolves around a man instead of a woman. Yet, it still is populated by dregs of humanity and what appear to be freaks of nature.
Most notable is the character called Hatchet Face. Actress Kim McGuire was discovered when a casting agent faxed Waters a photo of her. Waters had advertised for someone with “an alarming face who is proud of it.”
McGuire, whose countenance resembles a Picasso portrait, plays the horniest of the leather-jacketed Drapes. Her closest friend is played by Lake, Divine’s daughter in Hairspray.
“The Drapes were the first rebels I knew when I was growing up; Cry-Baby was meant to be my first `boy’ movie. Combining the two only made sense, particularly since this era—just prior to rock ‘n’ roll—hadn’t been satirized,” Waters said.
Depp calls Cry-Baby “Grease on acid.”
Waters culled long-forgotten rockabilly tunes for his sound track. He coaxed former Drapes to play the parents of charm school squares. He tried to cast the Praying Mantis, an ex-Drape who fought with her fingers tucked into her palms so her nails wouldn’t break, but she refused to be associated with the movie.
Waters is lamenting his failure to cast the Praying Mantis in his movie as he leaves the Clevelander. A street person overhears him and says if he’s talking about movies, Waters should talk to him. He knows movies.
“What’s your favorite movie of all time?” Waters asks him.
Gone With the Wind, the man replies.
“What’s your favorite trashy movie of all time?”
Lethal Weapon 2.
“Good answers. But not good enough,” Waters says in a friendly, somewhat disappointed manner as he leaves the man on the street corner and steps into his snow-white limo to return to his $495-a-night suite.