Much like Andy Warhol, John Waters created his own set of stars to populate his surreal film universe. And while many of the stars of his iconic 1970s films (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living) have died, they continue to attract loyal legions of fans.
Cookie Mueller was one of Waters’s regulars, a “Dreamlander” (named after Dreamland Studios, the director’s film company). Mueller had a fascinating life: as well as being an incredibly funny performer (she’s a force of nature in Female Trouble), Mueller was also an author and mother. Sadly, she succumbed to AIDS-related causes in 1989, one year after Divine died.
Canadian Chloe Griffin, a Berlin-based actor and writer, has penned an amazing tribute to the late icon. Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, comprises extensive interviews with her friends and family, including John Waters, Mink Stole and Gary Indiana. The book is an exhilarating read, taking us through the strange trip that was the Baltimore underground filmmaking scene and the growing hippie hangout that Provincetown was turning into during the ’70s. It helps that Griffin is a performer and filmmaker who works in the Berlin underground film scene herself — you can tell she gets Mueller’s unique take on the universe.
“During my first year out of high school in Montreal, I saw Cookie in Female Trouble,” Griffin recalls. “She plays Divine’s badass high-school girlfriend, and since I had been in some trouble in school myself, I immediately clicked with her attitude and imagined her as a kind of role model, along with the other Dreamlanders. They made it seem fun to be outsiders, rather than someone disjointed and uncomfortable — which is what it can feel like in reality.”
Griffin grew more intensely attached to Mueller when someone handed her a copy of Mueller’s book of short stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. “When I read her writing, it really affected me. It’s so direct and immediate that it’s like you actually meet her. She’s so present. That was the moment I thought I really want to pay homage to her.”
Griffin says Mueller’s intensely free and wild way of living was hugely inspirational. “Gary Indiana, the writer who was a close friend of Cookie’s, talks about this incredible freedom she seemed to possess. She had a freedom in the way she just lived her life and became herself. There was no artifice. She was a real wild child and embodied the bohemian spirit. Of course, she was also incredibly funny, almost absurdist, in her observations of things and people — which I really loved. She carries a kind of crackpot wisdom.”
Griffin says that spirit is carried over beautifully in Waters’s films. “I really love Cookie’s first screen appearance in Multiple Maniacs. She’s dancing to ’50s rock and roll, topless, in hot shorts and Spring-o-Lator heels with tons of jewellery on — necklaces and bangles and rings on all her fingers. Her boyfriend in the film puts a joint to her lips, which are painted black, and she delivers her lines like she’s just taken a handful of sleeping pills, valium and black beauties, while Divine, who plays her mother in the film, consoles her radical daughter.”
As Griffin conducted more interviews with those close to Mueller, the task of what she would do with all the material became overwhelming. “When I started, I wasn’t even sure what I would do or what I wanted to do. I was meeting people and recording conversations, but I didn’t necessarily foresee a book. I think that was because I began the research so spontaneously. The other day I was listening to my first interview with John Waters, from 2006, and at that time I said I thought I’d make a movie and perhaps a photocopied zine to go with it!”
As she came closer to the material, Griffin said she came to a point where “I had a far greater sense of Cookie as a person, not just an image one has from movies or stories. Cookie actually was a tender, loving person — not just a hard badass misfit. She was incredibly generous and really gave people her heart. Not one person said otherwise.
“I got more insight into Cookie by getting to know the people I was interviewing. Sharon Niesp, Susan Lowe, John Waters and Cookie’s son, Max. The trust that developed, along with the friendship, showed me I just needed to follow my heart. These relationships made the book a living part of my life and made the experience of listening to their memories a personal one.”