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'Here I am, closer to the gutter than ever': John Waters gets his Hollywood star

Filmmaker John Waters spent decades creating what he playfully calls "filth" for the big screen: irreverent, campy movies set in his hometown, Baltimore. After decades of being proudly outside the mainstream, the subversive auteur is now enjoying some very mainstream Hollywood attention. To coincide with the opening of major retrospective of his career at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, this week he was also immortalized in Los Angeles cement.

"Here I am, closer to the gutter than ever," he joked at the red-carpet ceremony for his sidewalk star this week. "The Hollywood Walk of Fame: You're the best and I hope the most desperate showbiz rejects walk over me here and feel some sort of respect and strength," he said.

Waters was surrounded by adoring fans and friends like Ricki Lake, who starred in his 1988 musical Hairspray, and the actress known as Mink Stole, who appeared in all 16 of his films. "The drains on this magic boulevard will never wash away the gutter of my gratitude," he said. Waters posed for the cameras with a framed photo of his late parents, who he said had indulged his passion for filmmaking.

Waters has always been a proud outsider and a queer icon among American filmmakers. With his pencil mustache and sarcastic smile, he became an underground celebrity in the 1980s, and has continued to be famous behind and in front of the camera. He started out in the 1960s as a teen making underground, guerilla films. He soon developed a cult following that continues to this day. Now, at age 77, Waters calls himself a "filth elder."

The exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is aptly called "Pope of Trash."

The first of 12 galleries dedicated to Waters is decked out as a chapel. It starts with a shock — a literal shock from trick buzzers under pews where visitors can sit to watch clips of what Waters calls his "humorous trash epics."

The first gallery in the "Pope of Trash" exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is outfitted as a chapel.
Charles White, JWPictures / Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
The first gallery in the "Pope of Trash" exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is outfitted as a chapel.

The gallery spaces feature film clips and memorabilia from all of Waters' movies, including the electric chair that executed his star Divine in Female Trouble. On display are Mink Stole's cat-eye spectacles from Pink Flamingos and the cockroach dress Ricki Lake' wore in Hairspray.

There's a dance floor for visitors to twist along to Waters' musicals, including Hairspray — the 1988 film about 1960's TV dance shows and racial integration, which became a hit Broadway show, remade with John Travolta and continues to be performed in high schools.

The exhibition also features Debbie Harry's exploding wig from Hairspray, the scratch 'n' sniff "Odorama" cards from Polyester, and the lethal leg of lamb prop from Serial Mom.

Waters is known for irreverent, campy movies set in his hometown, Baltimore.
Charles White, JWPictures / Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
Waters is known for irreverent, campy movies set in his hometown, Baltimore.
Fashions from John Waters films on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Charles White, JWPictures / Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
/
Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
Fashions from John Waters films on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Since his earliest days, Waters has outrageously and lovingly mocked society, mainstream values and institutions. The exhibition includes his first film in 1964: Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, and there's original footage of audiences leaving cinemas and reacting to the outrageous antics they've just witnessed.

"The most disgusting thing I've seen in my whole life," says one moviegoer after screening Pink Flamingos, which ends with a scene of Divine eating dog poop. "It's a little gross," says another,"...but I liked it."

"Pope of Trash" is the moniker writer William S. Burroughs once gave Waters, and it's where the exhibition gets its name. "The Duke of Dirt, the Prince of Puke. I had a lot of titles," he told NPR just before the show opened. "I wear them all proudly, and they were all given positively with irony."

Waters says he likes to surprise people — from lampooning hippies and squares, to celebrating drag queens and sex addicts, to appearing as himself in The Simpsonsand Alvin and the Chipmunks to now getting his flowers from The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and The Academy.

If you stick around long enough doing one thing, they can't get rid of you. They kind of have to accept you.

"If you stick around long enough doing one thing, they can't get rid of you. They kind of have to accept you," he says. "I mean, who would imagine that Pink Flamingos would have been named by the government as a great American film? It's still shocking to me, but things change." As for being memorialized and celebrated in a museum exhibition of his life and career, he says, "... this just happens a lot when you are dead. And that's good, too. But it's a lot better if you're alive."

Despite his provocative interpretations of American institutions and society, Waters says he always loved the subjects he parodied and has always been treated fairly by the film industry. "I have no bitter Hollywood stories," he notes, while offering a bit of his philosophy: "A sense of humor that knows that we never make our enemy feel stupid. We make them feel smart, even when they aren't. Get them to laugh, and then we can get them to listen."

As for all the current Hollywood hoopla, John Waters has said, "I'm so respectable I could puke."

Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum, says for a show designed for both Waters' fans and a new generation, the curators leaned into Water's tongue-in-cheek humor and themes such as body positivity and middle class hypocrisies, which are relevant to this day.

"There's been a long tradition of filmmakers working in these kind of marginal spaces, and that it is still happening outside of mainstream cinema," she says. "I think this show also indicates that it's OK if your films are not blockbusters, if you're not always aiming to reach every audience, but instead really delving into the particulars of the cultural and the local community that you're focused on. ... I think that it's going to bring brand new audiences to his work and I hope that John really does see this as this show of respect that the film community has for him."

The fact that he is being honored in Hollywood "is like some sort of insane, happy ending thing," says film historian and professor emeritus Jeanine Basinger. In the 1980s, she asked Waters if she could archive his "trash" at Wesleyan University's center for film studies, which was named after her. Until now, his scripts and ephemera have been stored there. "John is the ultimate outsider who's now being embraced warmly by all the big insider institutions. So he now he's become the ultimate insider, but he's never lost his outsider point of view."

The fans standing on Hollywood Boulevard to witness his star ceremony were equally tickled by Water's new Hollywood closeup. During his ceremony, an out of work actor named Danny Nero held up a poster of the Hollywood sign photoshopped to say "Filthywood." Cheering for Waters was porn performer Donna Dolore, who said, "I appreciate his bringing filth and perversion to audiences worldwide."

Vanessa Moreno, who identified herself as a journalist and a dominatrix, said she admires Waters "for showing you can be an irrefutable dirtbag and receive your accolades."

Kyle Montgomery, who was covered with John Waters tattoos, had come all the way from Canada to see his childhood idol be honored. "It's about time," Montgomery said. "The world is trash. He knew it all along."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.