John Waters runs deep

By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  June 21, 2006

Eat Your Make-Up was but the first of a series of fruitfully disgusting Waters-Divine collaborations. To date, their movies have included Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1977), and their latest, the pernicious suburban soap opera Polyester. (Waters also made a film with out Divine, the 1977 Desperate Living.) By far the most lavish of Waters’s movies (its $300,000 budget was nearly five times that of any previous Waters film), Polyester tells the rather rank tale of Francine Fishpaw (Divine), a rotund housewife whose life is slipping down the garbage disposal. The movie has edges Waters into the mainstream- a coup most of his fans probably never dared dream of- and for a number of reasons: it boasts reasonably professional production values, a well-rounded script, and “name” star Tab Hunter. More than that, though, Polyester is free of the hard-core gross-outs that have always epitomized Waters’s cinema.

“I felt like I had made fairly successful midnight movies, and I wanted to try something else,” he says. “I wanted to take a chance and affect more people. I wanted to try to make a movie that was still cynical, and still had my sense of humor- which I think this film does- but could get some people to see it that otherwise would have been scared to come. I mean, when we first started out, we wanted to scare people.” Waters’s first fling with aggressive shock-theater was Mondo Trasho, a little exercise in socially unredeeming violence made during the final surge of the Love Generation. “I didn’t want to sit in Woodstock, in mud, with Joan Baez,” says Waters, “and I knew that the one thing that was sacrilege was violence.”

It was the realization that violence (at least in movies) could serve as a form of anti-social japery that led Waters to his much-flaunted obsession with particularly noxious criminals. Waters adores the voyeuristic thrill of murder trials. He regularly travels around the country to seek out the juiciest of them, and even visited Charles Manson disciple Tex Watson in prison for eight years. “The main thing is my fascination with murder,” explains Waters, “is how the criminal deals with the sudden glare of publicity. Because for them, this is the only way they can become famous overnight. That’s what Female Trouble’s about. Oddly enough, Waters wasn’t impressed with the two most recent superstar assassins, Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley. “I think they’re real boring,” he says with frank disapproval. (One feels that in Waters’s world, being a dull person is a sin on par with murdering babies.) “They’re just so predictable, their stories. Although I did sort of like that once, when he started liking Jodie Foster. Divine said, ‘What’s she hiding for? If he were talking about me, I wouldn’t be sitting in some hotel.’”

Waters vastly prefers more inventive misfits, such as the defendant he saw in a recent trial- a 20-year-old nurse who was accused of killing an elderly patient by stuffing turds down his throat. “She said, ‘Well, I had my period!’” recalls Waters, raising his eyebrows in mock disbelief. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a defense.’ And then they gave her seven days in jail and she said, ‘For what?’ Nobody was at the trial except me and this other guy, and we were both trying so hard not to laugh.”

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