As the right wing wraps Samuel Alito up in a festive black robe, hoping to sell his Supreme Court appointment for Christmas (a holiday they again warn is being aggressively dismantled by liberals), celluloid iconoclast John Waters wants nothing more than to revel in the season-boozy familial fisticuffs, consumer despair, goopy cornflake-wreath cookies and all.
In a career spanning five decades, the Baltimore native has gone from cranking out cheap, underground films to producing big-budget counterculture comedies, all the while keeping his sense of the absurd and tawdry aesthetic intact. Through crass canonizations such as 1974's Female Trouble and more mainstream comedies such as 1986's Hairspray (since adapted for Broadway), Waters introduced audiences to endearing antiheroes such as drag star Divine and Edith Massey, aka "Edie the Egg Lady."
Waters will make an appearance at the Casbah nightclub Sunday, Dec. 18, to promote his CD, A John Waters Christmas, a handpicked compilation of 12 oddly delightful holiday songs. Waters also appears at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday, with New York electronica queen Peaches. His photo exhibit John Waters: Change of Life is on display at the Orange County Museum of Art through Jan. 15.
CityBeat: What will you being doing in this show?
John Waters: It's basically an hour-long monologue about my obsession with Christmas-crime at Christmas, presents, movies, my own movies, Christmas carols, how to have parties....
What is it that you love about Christmas?
I love how it makes people mental.... There's pressure on you about money, and there's pressure on you about family, and there's pressure on you about getting the right gift. If you can go through it all with a sense of humor, it can be a delightful time of year. If you're a criminal, it's a really good time of year. There's presents in people's cars waiting for you to steal, people have more money in their pocket if you're a mugger....
If I hear "Little Drummer Boy" one more time, I feel like I'm going crazy. That's why I put out my Christmas album, which basically has very obscure Christmas carols on it that aren't campy. There's no irony in those songs-"Happy Birthday Jesus" by Little Cindy-they were all made to be good songs, something just went a little wrong....
What's the strangest gift you've ever given or received?
I gave Divine a mink coat once in 1970, and it was a used one, believe me, and he wore it in Multiple Maniacs.... He was more obsessed by Christmas than I was. I think he was damaged because his parents made him be Santa Claus at the nursery school just because he was overweight. But he loved Christmas-god, did he love Christmas.... I spent a lot of Christmases with him. I guess the worst was when he almost went to prison for writing bad checks to give everybody all these great gifts. He always lived as if he was a rich movie star even though he didn't have a penny sometimes.... He gave me a great cashmere blanket that I still have in my bedroom.
Divine and I together were a good outlet for both of our angers and rage. Divine knew how to say my words. He was kind of like my Godzilla in a way. It was Godzilla and Jayne Mansfield put together. I think it was liberating to him, too, because Divine was never dressed in drag. That's what he did for work. He was kind of a shy gentleman in real life.
In San Diego, there's a flap over a change in the name of a longstanding holiday celebration from "Christmas on the Prado" to "December Nights." How do you feel about the PCing of Christmas?
I did it here with the mayor last week. Together we turned on the Christmas lights in Baltimore. They were playing "Santa is a Black Man" behind us, which was especially bizarre. I am big person that celebrates Christmas, but I believe that since everyone doesn't believe in that, I'm actually for not saying Christmas all the time, because I think it's offensive to Jewish people or agnostics.... Christmas is kind of funny to me now. It's like asking, "What do you want for the "C" word?' I think both extremes are silly, but technically I'm very much for the separation of state and church. I think Madalyn Murray [O'Hair] was right when she said that we should take "In God We Trust" off money. Suppose you don't trust in him? ... I'm for religion if it brings people contentment or happiness or whatever it brings them, but just don't make me do it.
When were you last in San Diego?
It was really a long time ago. I spoke to the National Convention of Librarians, and they were a wild group. There's always such a cliche that librarians are [dull]. They aren't. They're pretty insane.
I used to drive around with the taped dialogue to Desperate Living in my car, forcing friends to learn Mink Stole's lines.
I think it's got some pretty rude dialogue. That was my least joyous movie-and it did the worst when it came out.
How do you mean it was your least joyous?
It was pretty grim, and I think people were confused that it didn't have Divine in it, because Divine was doing a play at the time. And it was a lesbian melodrama about political corruption. I thought that would play at the malls, but it didn't. Some lesbian group stopped it from being shown, saying how dare a man make a comedy about lesbians-and today Desperate Living is brought by gay women's groups to colleges all the time to raise money, so things change.
You've opened a lot of doors with your films, giving people a glimpse of what was really going on behind the curtains of suburban America.
I have a pretty rank imagination. I'm not so sure that everything was going on.
Do you view yourself as a champion of First Amendment freedom-of-speech rights?
Certainly. I've fought censorship my whole life. I think some of my best press agents have been censorship from the Catholic Church to the Maryland Film Censor Board. You know, the MPAA is a censor board. They're the hardest, because they're nice to deal with.... I'm always amazed that they still do that, especially in my films, which are non-explicit and joyous comedies. I don't know how you can really be obscene if you're joyous.
Does the MPAA still try to mess with your films?
Truly. A Dirty Shame was rated NC-17 and I lost the appeal, and many theaters wouldn't play it. When it came out on video, I had to do a "neuter" version because Blockbuster and Wal-Mart and all those stores won't carry NC-17 movies. I had to do a special version for, I guess, the less-discriminate shoppers that get their DVDs at Wal-Mart.
To you maybe [laughs], but it wasn't very funny to me.... It's not just Wal-Mart. You think Target tries to be so hip. They won't carry NC-17 or un-rated movies either.... I tried to cut it for an R rating with the MPAA. I really had to cut so much out and put alternative takes that you're forced to do in your contract for cable television. So it's the baby version of A Dirty Shame. It's kind of a children's version they play [on cable].
As someone who satirized extreme fetish and violence onscreen, how do you feel about websites like nowthatsfuckedup.com, where the bodies of murdered Iraqis have been posted by military personnel as trade for access to porn?
I don't want to see that. Now, see, real violence I don't like. That's snuff movies.... As a matter of fact, I turn my head away on the news sometimes; I'm fairly squeamish about that.... I like violence that you know is fake, and then it can be enjoyable and funny. I don't think anyone that saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even the least discriminating moron, thought, Did they really get hurt?.... I guess there are people that could argue that eating shit was violent psychologically, but I think that mostly my movies are meant to be funny.
Have you found some good material from this presidential administration to satirize in film?
I certainly didn't vote for Bush, but I've lived through Nixon. I've lived through his father. I've lived through a lot of terrible times.... It seems almost that there's not a youth movement because he keeps stabbing himself in his foot so many times. I think there's no need for that. He's his own best enemy.
I don't go along with Reagan being a saint either. [It was kind of scandalous] when he died, how they really made him into a saint. There was never any bad stuff. It was nauseating.
Certainly, I wish there was a youth movement to satirize. Unfortunately, there isn't. [When I was growing up] the first thing I wanted to be was a beatnik, and then there was hippies and then there was punks and then there was grunge and then wiggers. What now? It seems like there's so much to rebel against and everybody's not rebelling. Why isn't Act-Up doing something with this pope? I mean, how much more anti-gay stuff can the Catholic Church get away with without it being a hate crime? I'm for using humor as terrorism, which is what the yippies did in the '60s. I wish the young people would use that again.
You've showcased obscure talents in your films such as Patricia Hearst and Pia Zadora. Is there anybody you've tried to get that you couldn't?
I don't think of either of them as obscure. Patricia Hearst, she's been in about six of my movies, so I think she's a gifted comedienne that is a real survivor. Pia Zadora, yes, at times, she got bad movie reviews, but she got great reviews for her singing voice. I was very proud to make a movie where Pia Zadora got all good reviews, so I never, ever try to cast somebody that I think is so bad, they're good.... I don't do that so much anymore. I have to get films financed. I think Cry Baby was kind of the height of when I did, as some people would call it, stunt casting. I guess that's supposed to be negative, but it wasn't to me.... I like to surprise you with my casting, but I never put anybody in it that I don't think will be good for the part.
Note: In his 1969 short film, The Diane Linkletter Story, Waters and his cast improvised a reenactment of the suicide of Diane Linkletter, the daughter of conservative 1960s TV host Art Linkletter. On Oct. 5, 1969, Dianne Linkletter leapt from her sixth-floor apartment in Shoreham Towers, just off the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It was said she had jumped while on the granddaddy of acid trips. Waters has said the film was made to test a new sound camera. It was shot just shortly after the news of her death broke, with Divine portraying the suicidal Linkletter.
What do you recall about the making of The Diane Linkletter Story?
One of the things that I want for Christmas is her reputation back, because, you know, supposedly she jumped out of a window on LSD. Well, recently there were Nixon White House tapes released where Art Linkletter and Nixon conspired to blame [Timothy] Leary for this, because she actually had not had LSD for a year before she jumped. I feel that [Linkletter] exploited her worse than I did. He put out a record called "We Love You, Call Collect." He also put out a book, Drugs at My Doorstep. So he didn't waste any time in turning her death [from] drugs into product, which I found more offensive than what we did. We felt like we were her, because all our parents said if you take LSD, you're going to go crazy. It wasn't until 20-some years later that I found out that she wasn't even on LSD when she jumped.
Oddly enough, I have a friend who found out after he bought a condo that he lives in the apartment where she [jumped] and it really freaked him out. I keep going up there and trying to have a seance, but so far nothing's happened.
What's your take on Laura Bush?
I like her better than her husband. At least she seems like she has a sense of humor once in a while. At least her charity is the library, something I very much agree with. She certainly dresses like a nerd, but I don't hate her with the passion that I find for her moronic husband.
What would be a good role for her in one of your films?
Oh, probably just as a crack whore or something-something playing against type-or a rap star, I think that would be good.
What role would you give her husband?
I wouldn't. He wouldn't get a callback.
X-Mas retro kitsch
A John Waters Christmas reviewed
Solana Beach resident and songstress Patti Page bears the dubious distinction of having her idyllic classic, "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" (usually misheard as "How Much is that Horny Little Bimbo?") featured in John Waters' cult masterpiece, Pink Flamingoes. As moviegoers will recall, Page's hit is heard during the culminating scene in which 300-some-pound drag-star Divine snacks on fresh poodle poop.
Waters has long used music of the late 1950s and early '60s to turbo-charge his films with just the right swagger, from buoyant piano jingles by Little Richard to jarring riffs by the late surf-guitar demigod, Link Wray.
Waters' fans won't find many atmospheric surprises on A John Waters Christmas. The retro batch mostly comprises his typical musical kitsch. For the CD (released late last year), the auteur has assembled a blend of Christmas castaways that would fit as comfortably in the background over mouthfuls of Grandma's mincemeat pie as they would at your next hipster holiday soiree.
Though the songs all receive the obligatory "explicit" tag over at iTunes (based, no doubt, on Waters' well-earned reputation), it's an unnecessary caveat, with the possible exception of the Rudolph & Gang's rednecky Christmas clunker, "Here Comes Fatty Claus" (with its recurring refrain, "Here comes fatty with his sack of shit"). The remainder of the songs convey Waters' warped sensibility in more subtle ways, such as in Roger Christian's, "Little Mary Christmas," a tale about a crippled orphan who, after being passed over for adoption year after year, "just turned and hobbled back to her room."
"First Snowfall," an instrumental by defunct Chicago lounge act the Coctails, stands apart with a warbling musical saw that's about as cozy as a Christmas Eve screening of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, but partygoers charring their livers with rusty nails will surely warm to Little Cindy's cheery opus about nails being driven into a bearded birthday boy, "Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child's Prayer)." Stormy Weather's obscure but delightful doo-wop number, "Christmas Time is Coming (A Street Carol)," is worth a ring of the Salvation Army bell, while the perfunctory Alvin & the Chipmunks song, "Sleigh Ride," is slid nicely into the mix. AKIM & The Teddy Vann Production Company's surprisingly innocuous, "Santa Claus is a Black Man" is an endearing tune about a young black girl who discovers Santa Claus one night and, amazingly, he looks just like her daddy. (The soulful mother gets her chops around Santa later in the tune.)
Sure, someone's bound to toss a brandied eggnog over Tiny Tim's version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," but it'll happen less frequently than it would had you put on that Barbra Streisand holiday CD.