The Filthy Genius of Director John Waters and THAT actress Divine (Part One)

*contains spoilers

And now for something completely different… Beyond the unisex toilet where whatever wants to go as well as being a part of or watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) while the rest go over the rainbow… We have the original midnight movie cult of director John Waters (1946-) and transvestite actress Divine (1945-88 sleep apnea) …

I will look at the politics and film mythology of a couple of Waters’ movies, in particular the anti-Capital punishment and insanity versus criminality divide in Female Trouble (1974) and the young punk Cecil B. Demented (2000) who for a brief time led a band of renegade underground filmmakers as Waters celebrates the attempted assassination of mainstream cinema and more or less ended his career in Hollywood by doing so.

Director John Waters (left) and his collaborator known by the stage name Divine
The actress Divine
Cecil B. Demented (2000) poster

These films represent a small part of Waters’s or Waters’ (there’s more than one lurking within his head, along with the fact that there’s an Aussie actor by the same name) work and his filthy early films belie the fact he created the apparently wholesome Hairspray (1988 and remade in 2007) as he was at the forefront of the acceptance of the alternative sexuality community, at least on the surface, in mainstream entertainment and as people. Onscreen this divide of the alternative lifestyle movie not being mainstream is still more than slightly apparent as oil and water still don’t mix as they are as different as chalk and cheese. Most ‘straight’ people still privately don’t want to watch such stories as they/we possibly deride cynically and humorously the ‘the BLT community’ to their/our own ‘sophisticated’ delight and possible latent denial, but Waters’ triumph is that his gross humour is now part of everyday life on screen even as a straight alternative and he would laugh at being called a BLT just as he described himself in one interview as “a cigarette” since he once smoked so all-consumingly heavily. Let’s not talk about our addictions.

John Waters, in the beginning, was not to everyone’s taste, to say the least, and his film Pink Flamingos (1972) for example is considered an alley in filmmaking which still shocks viewers into fits of laughter or revulsion or even both still when viewed for the first time today.

Waters’ short films and the rude rawness of Pink Flamingos’ shock value rode parallel to the works produced by Andy Warhol (1928-97 after gall bladder surgery) and Paul Morrissey (1938-) in the late 1960s such as the full-frontal Trash (1970) and his trans-fest Women in Revolt (1971). Pandora’s Box had been opened and the pendulum had started to swing as midnight screenings of cult movies began to happen as mainstream became curious about this alternate lifestyle. Perhaps Waters is the essence of cult in terms of what we are ashamed of in our lives as they as the guilty pleasure, and memory, we take home from a film or sexual experience…

Trash (1970) poster
Pink Flamingos (1972) art-work
Edith Massey as our lady of the eggs in Pink Flamingos (1972)

But we can watch an early John Waters movie and still retain a certain type of innocence – at least the first time or second time – since the antics in his movies are of the kind which you are unlikely to ever encounter or perform in your lifetime unless you are a practising criminal sex offender or pervert who likes to eat shit. The fact that Waters makes us laugh at such people is part of his genius. You will either be hooked or truly repulsed or just live in, what others call, denial but still admire the balls of Waters and Divine… and not necessarily those that are projected on-screen along with the shit-stained underwear in Female Trouble – for breaking down the fourth wall of bad taste as a form of acceptable yet perverse pornography.

Pink Flamingos with its nudity, excessive egg and shit eating and a contest to remain The Filthiest Person Alive made an instant star of the actor/actress known as Divine, or the transvestite actress with the stage name Divine. He was otherwise known as Harris Glenn Milstead of Baltimore where director Waters began his career with a loan from his well-heeled middle-class father. Waters would pay him back but his father didn’t perhaps embrace his son’s movies even though he kept the receipts of payment from his son as some show of love and respect in his left-over belongings.

“Tell me what exactly you are?,” asked interviewer David Letterman in one of his shows to the in drag Divine.

“I was born a male… I still have all the equipment I came with,” replied Divine. “I’m an actor who specialises in female parts… my stage name is Divine.”

A young Glenn Milstead
A young John Waters
The corrupt literature of Jean Genet

Waters and Divine began their association with a group of other actors and filmmakers which then grew into “a family of sorts” through the embrace of the counterculture and the smoking of marijuana. This company was then dubbed The Dreamlanders which is the production name used on the early Waters movies. Milstead was an overweight middle-class kid who was a drag performer nicknamed Divine by Waters after the character of Divine from French novelist Jean Genet’s (1910-86 throat cancer) “epic of masturbation” Our Lady of Flowers. Genet’s masterpiece may otherwise be Querelle of Brest and that was turned into the final film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82 cocaine and barbiturate overdose) and is scary to watch in terms of its out and out homoerotic sensuality and stylised scenery. Warning: A avowed macho homophobe may commit suicide after viewing Querelle (1982) and so it is dismissed or found still revulsive today by the mainstream. The usually macho oriented actor Franco Nero (1941-) deserved an award for having the balls to play a ‘queen’ who keeps a diary about his obsessions. I’m sure it’s a John Waters favourite in terms of exploitation or ‘bad’ movies. Anyway, Fassbinder, who was considered anti-gay by other gays as well as an anti-Semite, is fondly referenced in Waters’ Cecil B. Demented.

Vanessa Redgrave’s husband Franco Nero in Querelle (1982)
Eat your Make-up (1968) leaflet
Divine in The Diane Linkletter Story (1970)
She was a nice person according to her dad… But was he?

“The most beautiful woman in the world, almost,” said Waters of his discovery Divine, who would star in his relatively conventional, in terms of physical shocks, short films Roman Candles (1966/7) and Eat Your Make-Up (1968). They were the first Dreamlanders credits and the first was shot on 8mm and is regarded as experimental in terms of its editing and imagery. By Roman Candles, Waters was shooting on 16mm as his films plumbed such shocking things as homosexuality being linked to the Wizard of Oz. The early Waters shorts are forgotten and hard to see today but he definitely seemed to have crossed the line of what was acceptable bad tase with The Diane Linkletter Story (1970) about the life and death of Diane Linkletter (1948-69 suicide by jumping) whose death was attributed by her television personality father Art Linkletter (1912-2010) as caused by a peer group who gave her LSD and other drugs – while perhaps ushered by voices to jump to her death. It may have crossed the line in terms of poor taste in terms of the Linkletter family and Waters rarely references the movie in interviews I have seen… Be that as it may, Waters made his first feature where ridiculousness begins to take hold when compared to middle class reality. Previous, or around the time of the Linkletter short, which may have simply been made to provoke notoriety, Waters directed his first feature Mondo Trasho (1969) which was in black and white and had no synced sound as it followed Divine as well as foot-fetishists and visions of the Virgin Mary. This film uses without copyright popular songs of the 1950s and 1960s and as a result cannot be shown or released on DVD since it would infringe copyright. I’ve seen it and its of interest to Waters’ completists. Waters followed this with Multiple Maniacs (1970), also shot on 16mm black and white film, and it is notorious for the minutes long rape scene of Divine by a large lobster.

The director would then go totally over the top and hit bullseye with his first colour feature Pink Flamingos and its cheap and vulgar shocks deliver as Divine must prove she is still The Filthiest Person Alive despite some would dare otherwise try and claim the title. Divine’s character is a woman who lives in a secluded trailer with her trashy family and the film includes singing buttholes, chicken screwing and a nausea and even vomit inducing climax of Divine eating a fresh dog turd.

Mondo Trasho (1969) art-work
Divine gets raped in Multiple Maniacs (1970)
John Waters and Divine on David Letterman’s late night talk show

“There was no rating which could apply,” said Waters in one early interview about the unrated release in America of this movie… It would never play a mainstream theatre although unrated versions or movies are common today on DVD and Bluray. I was too young to see it at the daring suburban cinema where I grew up in Adelaide.

“I wanted to spread my cancer… or germs to suburbia… by that I mean my sense of humour… I find humour in all things that are terrible about America that people have anxiety about and the first thing or step in getting rid of anxiety is to laugh about it,” Waters has commented.

When you watch progressively the interviews with Waters on David Letterman’s late night talk show, Waters is cautiously welcomed by both Letterman and his audience… as they think his comments as politically incorrect as they occasionally groan and gasp at such unheard suggestions that they should make The Karen Carpenter Story as a joke. Director Todd Haynes (1961-) was possibly inspired by Waters or had already done so using Barbie dolls but the audience was at this time was clueless as to the cult possibilities… Back in the 1980s when Waters first appeared, this black humour usually went down like a lead balloon… but the strange thing is that by the time of Hairspray (1988) which was the crossover movie for Waters into the mainstream, his humour gets roars of laughter and the occasional tasteless miss or groan from an audience which in the beginning didn’t know what to make of this obviously homosexual or what they’d term queer man – even if Letterman never uses the word. The anxiety of the audience was relieved by Waters and by the 1990s, on Letterman, campy culture and perversion were allowed to a certain degree as the face of AIDS humanised gays – let them die of ‘it’ but we’ll laugh at them anyway…

To Futher underline and Water’s confrontation with the audience between the convention of good taste and manners with the horrors that exist outside of that conformity in terms of poverty and criminality and so-called, as well as, true sexual perversion becomes part of our and Waters’ underbelly living room where his movies let us revel in… Its possible danger to us is erased along with the very root cause of anxiety which comes from the child within and its later repressed desire not to conform …. There are still some kinks in people which never get ironed out. We laugh at the horrors of being fat and ugly and being a piece of shit in the lives of ‘real’ people … and eating it too! We can never be these people in the early Waters’ films but you can still relate to their behaviour as some sort of scatological intelligence remains leftover from our teenage rebellion… Conservative conformists will never watch these ‘morally corrupt’ movies.

The Avalanches song Frontier Psychiatrist uses dialogue from Polyester (1981)
Polyester (1981) poster
Liz Taylor didn’t mind serving hot dogs
Divine (centre) is some sort of gross Liz Taylor in Female Trouble (1974)

The average Letterman audience had probably only ever seen Polyester (1981) and the original version of Hairspray (1988) and not Pink Flamingos which showed a certain naivete and irony in their almost full embrace of Waters the personality by 1990. In one early Letterman interview a lone laugh betrayed that someone had seen Pink Flamingos and it was stifled like the guy who applauded Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.

To go on about the Letterman interviews and he calls Waters “peculiar” and “strange” and when Waters admits to visiting someone who is in jail for life, Letterman denies knowing any at all in jail and again it is that cult of celebrity and the stigmatisation of those who are mentally ill or criminal or ‘strange’… deny everything – except in the world of Waters where in the reality of ‘normal’ America someone knows or is related to someone of these, dare I say, persuasions…. It’s enough to cause an anxiety attack! And when Waters brings on a toy electric chair which gives you a small battery-operated shock, he also mentions the Rosenbergs or Julius (1918-53) and Ethel (1915-53), who were both put to death by the electric chair. Still off limits and Letterman at first refuses to touch the toy. Worse, when you watch Letterman and Waters said he was asked to Italy by the communist party for a film festival where the director claimed the headline in the local communist rag was: “filthy people of the world unite” – and Letterman asks how he had been approached by the communists. You wonder if it is all a pantomime which the later appearances by Waters with Letterman are. But such was and is the stigma of communism in America… and the stigma of stigma! Enough.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are under arrest and later treated to the electric chair
The Thing is that Pandora’s Box was opened and cinema was never the same again
The thing is that some people like some organisations never change hands

I was introduced to Waters, otherwise known as the Prince of Puke, when I saw Polyester at a midnight screening upon its first release aged fourteen in 1981. As a possible foot fetishist myself (I was already recovered child cross-dresser), who isn’t these days, the film used the novelty of scratch and sniff cards where a card was given to each audience member and then a prompt in the form of a number would appear in the corner of the screen and you would scratch and sniff the number on the card… The results may have been pizza, or someone putting their head in a gas oven, or even a fart. Named Odorama, the film had Divine as housewife named Francine Fishpaw – yes, you know why – as she looks like an overweight Elizabeth Taylor, something which takes me back to Female Trouble where Divine makes a similar impression with dark flowing locks and heavy eyeliner… like Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in one… Just before I launch into Female Trouble, let me mention that Hairspray was such a success in 1988 and revered as a crossover of camp in the same way The Wizard of Oz united sexually polarised audiences to a degree since 1939… Most know Hairspray was remade following the movie being turned into a successful Broadway musical and this version from 2007 with John Travolta in the cross-dressing Divine role of the mother Edna Turnblad is a woman who faces lifelong obesity just like her daughter.

Hairspray (1988) trailer
Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby (1990)
Don’t get hung up on a bitter/bitta dag like some people… a scene from Serial Mom (1994)

Of the “celluloid atrocities” which Waters describes his movies, his follow-up to Hairspray starred Johnny Depp (1963-) and was called Cry-Baby (1990), while Kathleen Turner (1954-) starred in Serial Mom (1994), which included a scene with a teenager getting caught in an onanistic act to imagery in a Chesty Morgan (1937-) movie… If you’ve ever seen a Chesty Morgan movie… But Pecker (1998) was a commercial failure despite possibly introducing “tea-bagging” to a new generation of naïve heterosexuals. I’m guilty.

Back to the mention of the electric chair and the cult of criminality as opposed to beauty … or the cult of beauty and fame as it relates to criminality where the ultimate prize in America is the electric chair instead of an Oscar for kidnapping or killing instead of enrapturing an audience with talent and looks… and we have Waters’ Female Trouble (1974) which follows the life of Divine as Dawn Davenport from her teenage years through to her early criminality to being tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair despite being possibly totally insane. They did it Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002 lethal injection) and reports vary that she claimed she would wake on the Starship Enterprise. It’s a worry. Incarcerate for life otherwise.

Real-life killer Tom Neal (left) in the low-budget masterpiece Detour (1945)
Automobile wreck and crime scene perversity … Tom Neal’s murder house
James Dean’s fatal car wreck

The seriousness at the core of the movie is forever captured in the symbol of Dawn’s fact in freeze frame at the end of the movie as it captures her scarred and insane grimace as the juice is turned on… Her crimes were too much for her to be declared criminally insane and taken to a facility for the rest of her life and also the fact she wasn’t a legitimate media celebrity like Tom Neal (1914-72 heart attack) or O.J. Simpson (1947-) to also get off relatively lightly. Dawn is happy to face the electric chair as it was all she ever aspired to in the first place. She understands what it takes to be a star.

The fact that she is found guilty in a show trial where the rich tell lies just as much as the criminal and the fact the two are in effect indistinguishable shows there’s something wrong in American justice and Waters’ makes possible his most political movie as a result. Some youngsters are also easily led… and will put anything in their mouth! It could all lead to a life of criminality…

Be inspired by John Waters as he commits Hollywood career suicide later on in PART TWO

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