After more than 40 years of making movies that have deliriously taken bad taste to new depths you would think John Waters could no longer shock his rabid fans. But in recent years we have seen Waters ascend from the gutter to take his place among the pop-culture pantheon, becoming an iconic American celebrity who wittily weighs in on everything from freedom of expression to Mommie Dearest.
The current shocker? John Waters genuinely loves Christmas. He released his collection of weird and wonderful holiday tunes, A John Waters Christmas, in 2004. It features such oddities as the catchy black-is-beautiful anthem “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” and the saccharine Southern drawl of Little Cindy wishing “Happy Birthday Jesus.”
Waters is currently touring with a live Christmas show, which includes stories and a Q&A. “Expect to hear a rant about my love of Christmas,” says Waters, “but I understand people that hate it, people that hate their family at Christmas, people that go crazy. I think that you can take even the most negative things about Christmas and have fun with them in your own depraved life. I like the tension, the pressure and I like the debt.”
When I suggest that hordes of holiday shoppers trampling over one another to buy discounted merchandise is the closest thing North Americans have to riots, Waters exclaims, “I’m mystified why kids aren’t rioting today. ACT UP did it for a while; I think they need to start ACT BAD. The next kind of group that uses humour for terrorism against your enemy. I’m all for that.”
For his part Waters is less concerned with Christian conservatives south of the border than with a more insidious threat. “Liberal censors are the thorn in my side, do-gooders that say, ‘We like your movie but you can’t show it to people at this age.’ Which means that the video shops won’t carry it, which means you won’t make any money and it’s harder to get your next film made.” Waters was slapped with a deadly NC-17 rating in the US for his 2004 film A Dirty Shame, and the DVD could only be sold at “family-friendly” retailers like Walmart if it was cleaned up.
After an adaptation of Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray debuted on Broadway in 2002 Waters became a veritable household name. “Well, in the beginning I was a household name in very special households — criminals and bikers and drug addicts. I guess I just expanded from that base. It’s been fun. I’m proud that I thought up something in my old bedroom that’s actually made four fat girls a star.
“It’s all the joy I should have had from my movies… but Divine died. It can never make up for that, but it certainly gives me some of the joy I would have had if Divine had lived.”
Waters’ hugely talented muse, Divine, passed away 20 years ago amid great critical acclaim just as Hairspray was opening. To the fags (like myself) who cry foul at “straight” Scientologist John Travolta playing Divine’s role of Edna Turnblad in Adam Shankman’s recent film adaptation of the musical, Waters suggests some misguided loyalty. “John Travolta made it his own part. Each time [that role] had to be reinvented. If someone tried to play it exactly like Divine it wouldn’t work.”
What queer filmmakers excite him at the moment? “I don’t even think if they’re queer or not, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me: Todd Solondz, who’s not gay, Todd Haynes, who is, Gus Van Sant. I always joke when they say ‘openly gay,’ what’s that mean? When are they going to say ‘openly heterosexual Otto Preminger died?’ I love Gregg Araki because once he came in [to the closet]. That was so radical when he did that, I was all for it. And now he’s back out. I want a lot of people to go back in, we don’t want you, it’s not a numbers war. My favourite really is Jacques Nolot, a French director that I really, really love. He has a new one called Before I Forget that is the best feel-bad movie about being gay that I ever saw. Like when the guy’s out cruising and shits his pants because he’s too old and sick!”
Waters has many projects on the go, from the upcoming Broadway adaptation of his 1990 film Cry Baby to developing a new film, “a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure called Fruitcake.”