John Waters Is Not a Poppers Pig


By Aaron Hicklin

The distinctions, of course, are greater than the parallels. Waters and his Dreamlanders -- the collective name by which his actors are known -- were fighting a cultural war, not a real one. They were angry, but they weren't deluded. Although he attributes his teenage angst to boredom ('That's why rock 'n' roll exploded and everyone went crazy -- it was an implosion of boredom'), Waters channeled it into comic mayhem. There was nothing comic about Manson. Only one of them could have given us the indelible image of Divine being raped by a giant lobster. Like that three-foot bottle of poppers or his art pieces, such as Hollywood Smile Train -- a photographic series of digitally altered celebrities, including Meryl Streep, Alfred Hitchcock, and Elizabeth Taylor, with harelips -- Waters likes to screw with our perceptions for fun.

'What freaked me out was that they [the Manson Family] freaked out the world doing the same things we were doing in my movies as a joke against hippies,' says Waters. 'So it became a weird thing.' But while the Manson Family was sequestered in their compound hatching their diabolical plan, the Dreamlanders honed their mischief on the streets of Baltimore and Provincetown. Waters first hitched to P-Town in the summer of 1965 with his then-girlfriend, Mona Montgomery, and hasn't missed a summer since. When he returned the following year, he brought Mary Vivian Pearce along for the ride, and before long most of his group had established a summer routine there. They shoplifted, took a lot of speed, and played canasta. Divine opened a short-lived thrift store. Cookie Mueller got engaged to a 78-year-old homosexual. For one summer most of them lived in a tree fort. While Charles Manson was dreaming of a race war and world domination, the Dreamlanders were handing out candy lipsticks on Commercial Street to promote Waters's movie Eat Your Makeup, in which models are kidnapped and forced to eat their makeup.

And here's one other distinction: Waters is not quick to judge. His movies may follow a similar structure, in which the disreputable take on the respectable, but they never sermonize, except to tell us to lighten up. His appreciation of Johnny Mathis, which opens Role Models, is a case in point. Visiting the crooner in West Hollywood, he spots a framed photo of Mathis and George H.W. Bush, as well as a copy of Nixon's Six Crises on a bookshelf. Instead of the easy road of condescension, Waters, who likes to say he was among the few who voted for Obama because he was a friend of Bill Ayers, reverses the scenario: How might Mathis respond on a visit to Waters's Baltimore home? What would he make of the crucifix cigarette lighter on the living room table, or the brass knuckles Waters keeps beside his bed -- 'just in case?' And how about that set of Obama nesting dolls? Mathis may count Nancy Reagan among his drop-in guests -- they apparently like to duet together -- but Waters has Patricia Hearst popping by to debate what hair color she should wear on the witness stand. 'It's the same thing, just different extremes,' he says.

This process of transference -- how would I feel in their shoes? -- is what makes Waters so empathetic and delightful to be around. And it's what drives his campaign for Leslie Van Houten. 'I am obsessed by redemption'by people who have done something once that society thinks is so terrible and how they deal with that and get better,' he says. 'If you tortured animals as a child and read The Catcher in the Rye too many times, I'm against you getting out of jail, but there are some -- few -- that I think can make it.'