Waters at Pen America/Free Expression Literature, May 2014
John Samuel Waters Jr.
April 22, 1946
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
John Samuel Waters Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American filmmaker, actor, writer, and artist. Born and raised in Baltimore, Waters rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, including Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974). He wrote and directed the 1988 film Hairspray, which became an international success and was adapted into a hit Broadway musical. Waters has written and directed other successful films, including Polyester (1981), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), and Cecil B. Demented (2000).
As an actor, Waters appeared in the television series 'Til Death Do Us Part (2007), and in the films Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Seed of Chucky (2004), Excision (2012), and Suburban Gothic (2014). More recently, he performs in his touring one-man show, This Filthy World. Waters has often worked with actor Divine and his regular cast of the Dreamlanders.
Waters also works as a visual artist and across different mediums, such as installations, photography, and sculpture. In 2016, he received an honorary degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. His books Carsick (2015) and Mr. Know-It-All (2020) were both nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
Waters was born in Baltimore, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker; 1924-2014) and John Samuel Waters (1916-2008), who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment. His family were upper-middle class Roman Catholics. Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, later known as Divine, also lived in Lutherville.
The film Lili inspired an interest in puppets in the seven-year-old Waters, who proceeded to stage violent versions of Punch and Judy for children's birthday parties. Biographer Robrt L. Pela says that Waters' mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters' subsequent career (though Pela believes tacky films at a local drive-in, which the young Waters watched from a distance through binoculars, had a greater effect).
Cry-Baby was also a product of Waters' boyhood, because of his fascination as a seven-year-old with the "drapes" then receiving intense news coverage because of the murder of a young "drapette", coupled with his awed admiration for a young man who lived across the street and who possessed a hot rod.
Waters was privately educated at the Calvert School in Baltimore. After attending Towson Jr. High School in Towson, Maryland, and Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson, he ultimately graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland. While still a teenager, Waters made frequent trips into the city to visit Martick's, a beatnik bar in downtown Baltimore. He and Milstead met many of their later film collaborators there. Although underage and therefore not admitted into the bar proper, Waters loitered in the adjacent alley, where he relied on the kindness of patrons to slip him drinks.
Extremely influential to his creative mind, Waters said the following about seeing the film,The Wizard of Oz (1939):
I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.
Waters has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films.
In January 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the grounds of NYU; he was soon kicked out of his NYU dormitory. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed his next two short films Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup. These were followed by the feature-length films Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs.
Waters' films became Divine's primary star vehicles. All of Waters' early films were shot in the Baltimore area with his company of local actors, the Dreamlanders. In addition to Divine, the group included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Walsh, and others.
Waters' early campy movies present exaggerated characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogue. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, which he labeled the Trash Trilogy, pushed hard at the boundaries of conventional propriety and movie censorship.
Waters' 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter. Since then, his films have become less controversial and more mainstream, although works such as Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented still retain his trademark inventiveness. The film Hairspray, the last movie he produced, was turned into a hit Broadway musical that swept the 2003 Tony Awards, and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007, to positive reviews and commercial success.Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.
In 2008, Waters was planning to make a children's Christmas film called Fruitcake starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey. Filming was planned for November 2008, but it was shelved in January 2009. In 2010, Waters told the Chicago Tribune that "Independent films that cost $5 million are very hard to get made. I sold the idea, got a development deal, got paid a great salary to write it--and now the company is no longer around, which is the case with many independent film companies these days."
Waters has often created characters with alliterated names for his films including Corny Collins, Cuddles Kovinsky, Donald and Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Ricketts, Sandy Sandstone, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.
Waters is a bibliophile, with a collection of over 8,000 books. In 2011, during a visit to the Waters house in Baltimore, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson observed:
Bookshelves line the walls but they are not enough. The coffee table, desk and side tables are heaped with books, as is the replica electric chair in the hall. They range from Taschen art tomes such as The Big Butt Book to Jean Genet paperbacks and a Hungarian translation of Tennessee Williams with a pulp fiction cover. In one corner sits a doll from the horror spoof Seed of Chucky, in which Waters appeared. It feels like an eccentric professor's study, or a carefully curated exhibition based on the life of a fictional character.
Waters has had his fan mail delivered to Atomic Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, for over 20 years.
Puffing constantly on a cigarette, Waters appeared in a short film shown in film art houses announcing that "no smoking" is permitted in the theaters. The 'No Smoking' spot, starring Waters, was directed by Douglas Brian Martin and produced by Douglas Brian Martin and Steven M. Martin along with two other short films, for the Nuart Theatre (a Landmark Theater) in West Los Angeles, California, in appreciation to the theater for showing Pink Flamingos for many years. It is shown immediately before any of his films, and before the midnight movie showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Waters serves as a board member of Maryland Film Festival, and has selected and hosted one favorite feature film within each Maryland Film Festival since its launch in 1999. He also serves on the advisory board of the Provincetown International Film Festival and has hosted events or presented awards at PIFF every year since it was founded in 1999.
In 2019, the Film Society of Lincoln Center celebrated its 50th anniversary at a gala where John Waters spoke in tribute to the Center along with Martin Scorsese, Dee Rees, Pedro Almodovar, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Moore, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.
Since the early 1990s, Waters has been making photo-based artwork and installations that have been internationally exhibited in galleries and museums. In 2004, the New Museum in New York City presented a retrospective of his artwork curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips. His most recent exhibition John Waters: Indecent Exposure was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art from October 2018 to January 2019 and later traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts. Prior to that, Waters exhibited Rear Projection in April 2009, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Waters has been represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, since 2002 and by Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York since 2006.
Waters' pieces are often comical, such as Rush (2009), a super-sized, tipped-over bottle of poppers (nitrite inhalants) and Hardy Har (2006), a photograph of flowers that squirts water at anyone who traverses a taped line on the floor. Waters has characterized his art as conceptual: "The craft is not the issue here. The idea is. And the presentation."
In November 2020 Waters promised to donate 372 artworks from his personal collection, including some of his own work as well as pieces by 125 artists, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman and more, to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In recognition of the donation the museum will name its rotunda and (at Waters' request) bathrooms after him.
With the motif "My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?", Waters completed a hitchhiking journey across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco, turning his adventures into a book entitled Carsick. On May 15, 2012, while on the hitchhiking trip, Waters was picked up by 20-year-old Myersville, Maryland, councilman Brett Bidle, who thought Waters was a homeless hitchhiker standing in the pouring rain. Feeling bad for Waters, he agreed to drive him four hours to Ohio.
The next day, indie rock band Here We Go Magic tweeted that they had picked John Waters up hitchhiking in Ohio. He was wearing a hat with the text "Scum of the Earth". In Denver, Colorado, Waters reconnected with Bidle (who had made an effort to catch up with him); Bidle then drove him another 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to Reno, Nevada. Before parting ways, Waters arranged for Bidle to stay at his San Francisco apartment: "I thought, you know what, he wanted an adventure, too ... He's the first Republican I'd ever vote for."
Bidle later said: "We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that's what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time. I think that's what America's all about."
Although he maintains apartments in New York City and (since 2008) in San Francisco's Nob Hill, and a summer home in Provincetown, his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland has been his main residence for all his life. All his films are set in Baltimore, often in the working-class neighborhood of Hampden. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil moustache.
An openly gay man, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride. In a 2018 interview Waters answered that while he is in a relationship, they both prefer to keep their relationship private: "If you don't keep some things private, you don't have a personal life." Waters stated that he always liked his partners having "their own life" and not being "groupies".
Waters was a great fan of the music of Little Richard when growing up. Ever since he shoplifted a copy of the Little Richard song "Lucille" in 1957, at the age of 11, Waters asserted, "I've wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard's body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities." In 1987, Playboy magazine employed Waters, then aged 41, to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well, with Waters later remarking: "It turned into kind of a disaster."
|1964||Hag in a Black Leather Jacket||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Short film|||
|1966||Roman Candles||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Short film|||
|1968||Eat Your Makeup||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Short film|||
|1970||The Diane Linkletter Story||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Short film|||
|2000||Cecil B. Demented||Yes||Yes||No||No|||
|2004||A Dirty Shame||Yes||Yes||No||No|||
|2007||Hairspray||No||No||Yes||No||Co-producer and consultant|||
|1969||Mondo Trasho||Reporter||Uncredited voice cameo|
|1972||Pink Flamingos||Mr. J||Uncredited voice|
|1986||Something Wild||Used car salesman||Cameo|||
|1989||Homer and Eddie||Robber #1||Cameo|||
|1994||Serial Mom||Ted Bundy||Uncredited voice cameo|
|1998||Pecker||Pervert on Phone||Uncredited voice cameo|
|1999||Sweet and Lowdown||Mr. Haynes|||
|2000||Cecil B. Demented||Reporter||Uncredited cameo|||
|2002||Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat||The Reverend||Cameo|||
|2004||Seed of Chucky||Pete Peters|||
|2006||Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea||Narrator||Voice; Documentary|||
|2006||This Film Is Not Yet Rated||Himself||Documentary|||
|2007||The Junior Defenders||Narrator||Voice; Direct-to-DVD|||
|2007||In the Land of Merry Misfits||Narrator||Voice|||
|2011||Of Dolls and Murder||Narrator||Voice; Documentary|||
|2015||Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip||Airplane passenger||Cameo|||
|1990||21 Jump Street||Mr. Bean||Episode: "Awomp-Bomp-Aloobomb, Aloop Bamboom"|||
|1993, 1995||Homicide: Life on the Street||Bartender
R. Vincent Smith
|1997||The Simpsons||John||Voice; Episode: "Homer's Phobia"|||
|1998||Frasier||Roger||Voice; Episode: "The Maris Counselor"|
|2006-2007||'Til Death Do Us Part||Groom Reaper||14 episodes|||
|2006||John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You||Himself (host)||13 episodes|||
|2007||My Name Is Earl||Funeral Director||Episode "Kept a Guy Locked in a Truck"|||
|2011||Superjail!||Quetzalpocetlan||Voice; Episode "Ghosts"|
|2012||Fish Hooks||The Yeti Lobster||Voice; Episode: "Rock Yeti Lobster"|
|2013, 2018||Mickey Mouse||Wadworth Thorndyke the Third||Voices; 2 episodes|
|2014||Mr. Pickles||Dr. Kelton||Voice; Episode: "Coma"|
|2015||RuPaul's Drag Race||Himself||Guest Judge; Episode: "Divine Inspiration"|||
|2016||Clarence||Captain Tom||Voice; Episode: "Plane Excited"|
|2016||Hairspray Live!||N/A||Associate producer|
|2017||Feud: Bette and Joan||William Castle||Episode: "Hagsploitation"|||
|2018||The Blacklist||Himself||Episode: "Sutton Ross (No. 17)"|||
|2018||Liverspots and Astronots||O-Dor||Voice; Episode: "The Exorcism of O-Dor"|
|2019||Tigtone||Fertile Centaur||Voice; Episode: "...and the Freaks of Love"|
|2020-2021||Law & Order: Special Victims Unit||Pornmonger Man||2 episodes|||
|2021||Finding Your Roots||Himself (guest)||Episode: "To the Manor Born"|||
In 1999, Waters was honored with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival. In September 2015, the British Film Institute ran a programme to celebrate 50 years of Waters films which included all of his early films, some previously unscreened in the UK.
In 2014, Waters was nominated for a Grammy for the spoken word version of his book, Carsick. His follow-up record, Make Trouble, was produced by Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan, and released on Jack White's Third Man Records in the fall of 2017.
In 2016, Waters received an honorary degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore during the college's undergraduate commencement ceremony. In 2018, Waters was named an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a cultural award from the French government.
|1988||Sundance Film Festival||Grand Jury Prize||Hairspray||Nominated|||
|1989||Independent Spirit Awards||Best Feature||Nominated|
|2015||Grammy Awards||Best Spoken Word Album||Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America||Nominated|||
Waters often casts certain actors/actresses more than once in his films.
|Frequent actor collaborations|
|Actor||Mondo Trasho (1969)||Multiple Maniacs (1970)||Pink Flamingos (1972)||Female Trouble (1974)||Desperate Living (1977)||Polyester (1981)||Hairspray (1988)||Cry-Baby (1990)||Serial Mom (1994)||Pecker (1998)||Cecil B. Demented (2000)||A Dirty Shame (2004)|
|Mary Vivian Pearce|
|Alan J. Wendl|
You can feel the influence of rock'n'roll in so many of Waters' films. Hairspray and Cry Baby might seem the obvious candidates, but his filmography is littered with litanies, strewn with sharp-talking teens with alliterative names.