Dodging the censors and the draft: Extras on John Waters’ American journey

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My Halloween 2013: Spent with John Waters in Studio 80A (photo copyright Samira Ahmed)

My special interview with director John Waters  for Radio 3  is here. And I’ve  posted some of the things that stood out that I had to leave out of the BBC Online news piece I wrote. Most of it should be in the Radio 3 recording, including film clips, such as the one mentioned below:

There’s a very famous scene in one of John Waters’ early films Female Trouble (1974) when a well meaning Aunt Ida tries to coax her straight nephew Gator into become gay. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”

Gay audiences cheered it in cinemas – but like his most famous heroine, Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad, Waters has always been against segregation; by race, gender or sexuality:

“What I wanted was bohemia…The first time I went to a gay bar was in Washington and it was called the chicken hut and there were telephones on the tables and everyone had on little fluffy sweaters. It was very 50s gay. And the phone would ring and they’d say, hi you look v cute, can I buy you a drink? And I thought you know, I might be queer, but I’m not this. I wanted bohemia, which was mixed. I’m still against separatism. I hate separatism… There won’t be any gay bars eventually.”

Waters says he worries that homosexuality remains taboo for too many non-middle class families and in an surprising part of the interview, talks about both the trauma of losing 70 percent of his gay friends to AIDS within a period of about  five years, but also how none of his friends went to Vietnam:

“When I was in the 60s I went down the draft board to have to go to Vietnam I knew how to get out of it. All the other people on that bus probably went to Vietnam and many of them died. Those people on the bus probably didn’t know anyone who died of AIDS. So I’m not sure that every generation doesn’t have some terrible thing that happens. (Pauses) And it was different..I didn’t know anyone that died in Vietnam. No one. And I grew up in the height of it. And that was because everyone I knew, knew how to get out of it.”

He also discusses frankly his use of drugs –  his Dreamlanders bonding through pot and LSD (he doesn’t recommend it now); the joys of Douglas Sirk films and his work discipline. His screenplays are rich with word play and the savouring of transgressive or period jargon from the 1950s: retard, mulatto, high yellow, Negro, skag. Favourite lines include: Mount me if you must, but not a kiss.” (Mink Stole protesting a sexually harassing traffic cop in Desperate Living). And: “Don’t you know it’s bad luck to let retarded people into your house?” (Divine’s evil mother in Polyester).

Watching the first 10 minutes of Female Trouble (1974) – is a fascinating alternative version of Hairspray. Divine (complete with 5 o’clock shadow) plays the 15 year old “hairhopper” getting into trouble in class for her outrageous beehive before attacking her parents for failing to give her cha-cha heels for Christmas.

“Originally Divine was going to play Tracy as well as her mother like in The Parent Trap. And would any of this happened if New Line had let me get my way?”

Waters was talking there about the commercial failure of Cry Baby with Johnny Depp – his Hollywood commission after the success of Hairspray. Perhaps there’s a part of Waters that misses the non-PG fun of his early films.

Fruitcake – his children’s screenplay – was due to start production in 2009 but stalled. Though he still would like to make it, with Johnny Knoxville committed to  playing the father. But in the meantime there are books to write, lectures to give, his photographic art to make and trials to follow. The crime reporter in me recognizes a kindred spirit. Talking while we waiting outside the studio to record  I found him erudite and thoughtful about the facts and ethical issues in various disturbing cases we’d both covered or been following: OJ Simpson, to Ariel Castro, Jimmy Saville to Hackgate.

So what is this avowedly avid book reader and art collector reading at the moment:  The new Norman Mailer biography, the new Donna Tartt novel and he admits a “trashy” new book about River Phoenix’s death at the Viper Room, that “I’m ashamed to say I’m reading.”

I’d expect nothing less.

Listen again: Interview with John Waters via BBC Radio 3 website

Further reading

John Waters’ This Filthy World is at Homotopia Liverpool Friday Nov 8th Tickets/info

Robert Maier’s website -  worked with Waters on many of his early films has some fascinating insights into the world of the Dreamlanders. These are two picks:

The censored race riot scene in Hairspray

In my interview you’ll hear Waters talk about watching Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk with his friend David Lochary. This is a thoughtful piece about the actor who died tragically young: The mystery of David Lochary

About Samira Ahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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