A tribute to the Pope of Trash: John Waters

The Pope of Trash John Waters is a filmmaker whose motion pictures have been defying all standards of decency and shattering taboos since the 1960's.

A photo of the Pope of Trash John Waters smiling at the camera.
Image: Via Twitter - @Criterion

As a misfit kid, growing up on the other side of the tracks in a single-parent family and noticeably queer in an isolated part of the (pre-decriminalisation) Irish countryside, (an environment akin to the purgatorial villages conjured up from the dark depths of a Patrick McCabe novel), the Pope of Trash John Waters was a beacon of light in this little outcast’s dark night of the soul. 

The saint of filth is a champion for the freaks, geeks, and outlaws – Waters is a filmmaker whose motion pictures have been defying all standards of decency and shattering taboos since the 1960’s, a sleazy successor to controversial purveyors of perversion once at the forefront of schlock and shock exploitation filmmaking: Doris (A Night to Dismember) Wishman, Ed (Let Me Die in Drag) Wood, and Herschel (1001 Maniacs) Gordon Lewis – artists infamous for pulpy B-movies, educational mockumentaries, and quasi-horror skin flicks.

The Pope of Trash John Waters taught me that there is nothing interesting about a healthy mind. The defining attributes of his output were skewed-glamour, obscenity, human grotesquery, and pitch-black humour – filth was his politics, filth was his life! His thoroughly indecent excursions into morality-free territories of bacchanalian bad taste offered moviegoers a bold voice for the underdog, a transgressive role model for monster kids. 

His characters were for the most part gender-bending cannibals, bourgeois baby-farmers, suburban serial killing moms, cinematic terrorists, and scantily-clad nymphomaniacs, his movies populated by larger-than-life miscreants who might have staggered drunkenly out of a Diane Arbus exhibition. Born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 22, 1946, from a young age Waters’s very existence was a direct and vivid assault on American conservative values; his insane plots boasted some of the most outrageously funny, revolting footage ever committed to celluloid, where concepts like dignity and decency were routinely skewered. 

The polymath (writer, performer, director, former NYU student) worked closely with his own deviant family: The Dreamlanders. Friends, neighbours, and relatives who fitted perfectly into the world of his movies. The committed production crew (Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, et al) compromised themselves to ensure Waters’ work became cult hits. The Dreamlanders were with Waters from the beginning, the short films he made in the ’60s showed the director already possessed a flair for the offensive and ruthlessly funny – the plot of Hag in a Black Leather Jacket featured an interracial wedding officiated by a clansman, The Diane Linkletter Story could have been searingly libellous and Eat Your Makeup was a tale of enforcing femininity (and death) on reluctant teenage girls. 

Below are a few of John Waters’s greatest achievements, some of which have broken a few obscenity laws over the years. 

First things first: one of the biggest factors in John Waters’s success and infamy is the legendary Divine. Divine was The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, almost.

The biggest draw for Waters films in the 1970’s/’80s, appearing in nearly all his earlier work, the sultry sex symbol stole every scene with her controversial dialogue, rapier wit, and flamboyant performances. The man behind the make-up was Waters’ lifelong friend Harris Glenn Milstead, a wealthy Baltimorean and talented character-actor who made Divine his armour. Milstead died right when he was on the cusp of achieving mainstream success after bagging a role in the popular sitcom Married With Children. Divine was also a recording artist with several pop hits under her garter belt and you can listen to one below. 

Multiple Maniacs
A sleazy black and white homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis with shades of Ingmar Bergman. Baltimore is outraged at Lady Divine’s (Divine) cavalcade of perversion, a fifth-rate porno show and sideshow attraction that has upwardly mobile, decent, family-oriented American citizens recoiling in disgust at the assorted “sluts, fags, dykes and pimps,” whose peccadilloes are displayed to the law-abiding locals for a small fee.

The sideshow is actually a front for Divine’s other nefarious activities, a murder and robbery syndicate with Lady Divine and her ghoulish subordinates relieving people of their wallets, short-change, and occasionally their lives!

Female Trouble
A coming-of-age fable, Waters style, Female Trouble follows truant-prone teen tearaway Dawn Davenport (Divine) who runs away from home after a Cha Cha Heels-related incident on Christmas morning. After a fumble in a ditch with an anonymous grease-monkey (also played by Divine) she winds up pregnant. Dawn is no dumpy hausfrau but a potty-mouthed, elegantly coiffed, big-haired Glamazon with a homicidal temper, so when she meets fickle fashionistas The Dashers, motherhood (and the Bratty Taffy (Mink Stole) are immediately sidelined when she enters into a Faustian bargain with the devious duo.

It ends in tears (and mass murder).

Serial Mom
A darkly comic satire with the amazing Kathleen Turner as the cookie-baking, PTA-attending, devoted wife and mother Beverly Sutphin. But Beverly has a macabre secret life, as a serial killer! The murderess corresponds with Ted Bundy, makes obscene phone calls to the long-suffering Dottie Hingle (Mink Stole), and views most of her neighbours as serial-killer fodder.

Beverly’s suburban facade begins to crumble when she kills a teacher in a hit-and-run, beats an old bat to death with a leg of lamb, and crushes a man with an air-conditioner. There are some controversial Waters casting choices with Patty Hearst and Traci Lords making blood-soaked cameo appearances. 

Pink Flamingoes 

Flame-haired Bourgeois beast and baby-farmer Connie Marble (Mink Stole) is murderously envious of the white-trash, 300-pound drag superstar Divine’s fame and notoriety and wants to usurp her as The Filthiest Person Alive! Cue chicken sex, coprophilia and selling infants to wealthy lesbian couples. Divine soon finds herself at loggerheads with rival Connie and her husband Raymond.

John Waters recently adapted Pink Flamingoes as a child-friendly stage play. Only the Pope of Trash John Waters could edit it down from an R to a PG-13, trimming away all the sex, violence, and bad language to make this trailer-park fable acceptable for a pre-teen audience. 


Viva Waters!

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

Support GCN

GCN has been a vital, free-of-charge information service for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community since 1988.

During this global COVID pandemic, we like many other organisations have been impacted greatly in the way we can do business and produce. This means a temporary pause to our print publication and live events and so now more than ever we need your help to continue providing this community resource digitally.

GCN is a registered charity with a not-for-profit business model and we need your support. If you value having an independent LGBTQ+ media in Ireland, you can help from as little as €1.99 per month. Support Ireland’s free, independent LGBTQ+ media.

0 comments. Please sign in to comment.