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The career of John Waters, Hollywood's 'Duke of Dirt'

“To me, beauty is looks you can never forget. A face should jolt, not soothe.” – John Waters

For John Waters, AKA The Prince of Puke, AKA The Duke of Dirt, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, with the iconic actor and filmmaker having created a career for himself rooted in the very essence of bad taste. Responsible for helping cult performer Divine to reach cultural fame by casting her in early films Roman Candles and Mondo Trasho, the director heralded a new era for independent filmmaking, one which encouraged total liberated freedom. 

Divine (Glenn Milstead) was actually a childhood friend of John Waters, with the two creatives growing up in Lutherville, Maryland, in the 1950s, gathering much inspiration for their future careers from the idiosyncrasies of their small local town. John Waters’ mother is said to believe that the film Lili was perhaps the single greatest influence on the career of her son, inspired by the puppets that appeared in the film to stage his own violent versions of Punch and Judy for children’s birthday parties. 

This was in addition to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz which Waters often cites as a significant source of inspiration, commenting: “I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.”

A self-proclaimed lover of both high-brow “art” films and sleazy exploitation films, Waters also notes 1958s The Blob as one of his all-time favourites, as well as the Roger Ebert written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which Waters recalls as being “like a fine wine, it gets better and better as life goes on”. Acting as inspiration for his early short films Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup, each of Waters’ initial movies used local Baltimore actors, with Divine as the primary star. Short films were quickly followed by feature films, with Mondo Trasho allowing Waters to approach his ‘trash trilogy’ with confidence, creating Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, with each of which pushing the boundaries of popular taste and film censorship. 

Pink Flamingos became particularly notorious for its provocative plot, focusing on Divine retaining her title of “the filthiest person alive”, as well as the actions of the character herself, who at the film’s climax, eats dog excrement from the pavement. A genuinely disgusting moment, recollecting the event, Waters explains his thinking behind the scene, exclaiming: “What can we do that isn’t against the law, yet? Something that will really freak people out, as a publicity stunt, as a joke”. Though repulsive, the scene and the larger-than-life character of Divine helped to put both the actress and the director, John Waters, on the radar of popular culture. 

Following these provocative debut features, Waters felt he could relax, and as a result, dialled back on the controversy of such pictures, whilst still retaining his trademark originality. The 1980s and ’90s were marked with musical endeavours as the director created both Hairspray and Cry-Baby, both Waters’ most commercially successful, and critically acclaimed pictures with both being adapted to big-budget Broadway stage plays. 

The career of the eccentric LGBTQ+ icon has since slowed down, having not directed a film since 2004s A Dirty Shame, favouring instead sporadic appearances across cinema and television, whilst ticking over his own personal projects in the background. His legacy on modern cinema cannot be understated, however, with his unique take on beauty and ‘trash’ inspiring the likes of modern master Harmony Korine among others. In conversation at Provincetown International Film Festival, John Waters commented the following on Korine’s film: “After seeing— no, not seeing, but elegantly suffering happily through ‘Trash Humpers,’ well, I’m finally considering fucking a trash can because of it”.

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