The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is presenting “John Waters: Pope of Trash,” the first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the artist’s contributions to cinema. The exhibit opened Sunday and runs through August 4, 2024.
The exhibition explores John Waters’s methods, themes, and incomparable movie-making skills and style. It includes costumes, props, handwritten scripts, correspondence and memos, scrapbooks, photographs, moving-image material, and much more. On Monday, Waters finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I’m very proud, and excited,” Waters told The Advocate. “I have always been able to continue to do what I wanted to do, and it’s never felt like a job. I’m so grateful that I have always had an audience, and I’m lucky that that audience lets me get away with the things I do, and that they have allowed me to do the things I do for so long.”
Some might say Waters has pushed the boundaries of good taste. His films have always been highly entertaining, while at the same time bringing a shock to the system of moviegoers. “He has cemented his position as one of the most revered independent auteurs in the history of American movies,” said co-curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe. “A massive inspiration to other artists who rebelled against the mainstream,
Waters’s renegade films are replete with muses and themes derived from obsession and celebrity culture.
Waters said that his films have drawn on the inspiration of other filmmakers, including Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Andy Warhol, and Ingmar Bergman. They are also tributes to his hometown of Baltimore.
“What this proves is that anything can happen in life, and that a boy from Lutherville, Md., with crazy ideas and a camera can have his work shown in the same building that houses the Oscars,” he said with pride.
“This just proves that any young person with a fierce passion for something, and who is told they can’t do it, can do it. I always believed that if enough time passed, and I kept my sense of humor, I’d make it. And, I’ll be honest, it is flattering that after all this time, people in the entertainment industry are recognizing my success.”
According to Waters, there was one item that stuck out. “Debbie Harry’s wig from the original Hairspray film from 1988,” he pointed out. “I didn’t know they had it, so that was quite a surprise.”
Waters also note that the exhibit includes many artifacts from his boyhood and longtime friend, and muse Glenn Milstead, otherwise known as Divine. They collaborated on many projects, first in Waters’s second film, Roman Candles, as well as classic hits Pink Flamingos, Polyester, and Hairspray. “Divine was such a good friend and partner; I sure do miss him. He was big and loud, and never afraid to take on these crazy storylines with me.”
“And you know, a lot of people don’t know this, but Divine wasn’t trans or walked around in women’s clothes. In fact, he always wore high-priced men’s suits. He told me that he wanted to be a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla, and that pretty much described him.”
Waters also credits Pat Moran, his casting director and best friend of 50 years, with helping his films shine. “We certainly did a bit of unconventional casting, like having a star from a different era play an eccentric character. That’s what we did for my wonderful friend Tab Hunter in Polyester. His career popped back up because of that film. Same with Pia Zadora in Hairspray. Pat was so instrumental, and she went on to win some Emmys for her work in The Wire and Homicide, which were both based in Baltimore like some of my films.”
Was there anyone he hoped would come and see the exhibit, or wished was still alive to see it? “I wish my parents could see it. They had a wonderful sense of humor, and while they were staunchly Catholic, they did let me get away with doing some pretty bad things. And I want anyone who is weird, ugly, marginalized, and bullied to come and see it, and understand that while the world might be stacked against you, you can make it.”
How about anyone he did not want to allow into the exhibit? “Now, if I told you that, I’d create an international scandal, so I’m not going to tell you who that is.”