Or maybe the overall turmoil stifled the make-believe version. Audiences didn’t need riots on the screen when they had them in the streets. When the SDS took over the president’s office at Columbia University, or Yippies nominated a pig for president, the youth revolution of Wild in the Streets (1968) seemed anticlimactic.
Instead, perhaps noting Dr. Strangelove’s advice about mineshafts, many of those most alienated from their times headed underground. John Waters, scion of a middle-class Baltimore family and raised as a Catholic, had been making movies since he was 17, in 1964. They included Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup, in which Waters’s future superstar, the 300-pound transvestite Divine, plays Jackie Kennedy.
In his first sound feature, Multiple Maniacs, Waters developed his basic themes, which — in addition to coprophagy, cannibalism, transvestism, incest, inter-species rape (seven-foot-tall lobster on 300-pound transvestite), and other taboo violations — are oddly conservative (violent SDS-like protesters are among those skewered). He believes in family, but not the traditional middle-class, monogamous, heterosexual family rife with intolerance, hypocrisy, and greed. Rather, he favors the kind of family embodied in his biggest underground hit, Pink Flamingos (1972), in which Divine plays a matriarch living in a trailer with her senile, egg-sucking mother and her son, who gets it on with chickens when he’s not getting blow-jobs from mom. Divine challenges a rival couple, the hatefully snobby, venal, bourgeois, serial-killing Marbles, to a contest to determine who are the “filthiest people in the world.” With the film’s infamous poodle-pooping finale, the filthiest family has won.
After two more exercises in such bad taste, Waters was ready for a change. In his 1981 book Shock Value, he lamented that the only way he could outdo himself at that point was to show mental patients eating colostomy bags. Ah, the perils of genius. In other words, he was ready for the mainstream, beginning with Polyester (1981), in which he cast Tab Hunter and got an R rating. His subsequent films have been more polished, expensive, and bland, though still, in their way, radical. Even in its current family-friendly format, Hairspray advocates integration, a once-again controversial concept given the recent Supreme Court decision that virtually overturned the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education.
Waters may have moved to the mainstream, but the mainstream also moved to Waters. His lovably perverse, socially marginalized, and fun-loving protagonists spurred a new sub-genre, a certain kind of crude, outrageous comedy, starting with counter-culture doper comics Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978), and the National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The concept spawned one of the most resilient and lucrative genres in Hollywood history, continuing through Caddyshack (1980), Porky’s (1982), and their sequels, and up to such recent hits as Old School, Anchor Man, Accepted, ad nauseam. From the $6,000 origins of Waters’s anarchic assaults against the status quo, his legacy of gross-out comedies pitting degenerate rebels against the smug and privileged has grossed, appropriately enough, more than a billion dollars over the past three decades.