No one missed the irony of a John Waters retrospective at The Walter Reade Theater across Lincoln Center's plaza from Fashion Week. On opening night, Waters, in hot red pants and print jacket, introduced the Female Trouble screening noting that he had to explain to drag queens that cha-cha heels, coveted by his heroine Dawn Davenport for Christmas, did not refer to spiked but to the flatter more chunky kind. It's that attention to detail, however gross, that makes a John Waters flick so distinct, and his characters performed by Divine, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, among those no longer with us, indelible, owing more to DeKooning's grotesques than to anything on a fashion runway.
Nevertheless, there were some teased up bouffantes with spit curls in the audience, and Mink Stole posed for an iphone photo with a guy sporting a Waters tattoo on his upper arm, including the Pink Flamingos auteur's signature penciled in 'stache. In a post-screening Q&A with J. Hoberman, Waters remembered Joan Rivers, a cameo in Serial Mom starring Kathleen Turner who was also present among other stars and artistic collaborators: Pat Moran, Susan Lowe, Channing Wilroy, and set designer Vincent Peranio, who told me at the Stone Rose Lounge afterparty that loyalty to Waters was fierce. Performers would quit other jobs to be available if Waters had a movie. This, even though as Susan Lowe pointed out, they were paid very little for these "family" affairs. Until, of course, Hairspray, the project that "normalized" his satire for Broadway and Hollywood, and for his recent books, Role Models and Carsick, about his hitchhiking across America.
1970s America was a very different place, especially Baltimore, ground zero for Waters' subversions. In Female Trouble, after a rape, Divine's Dawn Davenport gives birth to a baby on a filthy couch, ripping its umbilicus with his teeth. That baby was Lowe's week old son, now 40. In Desperate Living, Lowe plays a lesbian who gets a penis job to please her lover, only to learn, she hates the male organ. Lopped off and tossed out a window, the boner is lunch for a dog passing by. Said Lowe, "We had only one take, and blood was supposed to flow but I couldn't cut the bag. John made it work anyway."
Before she died of AIDS in 1989, Cookie Mueller wrote a memoir describing the making of Pink Flamingos, starring Mink Stole and others, of how Divine's shit-eating ending was shot: yes, that was real dog do-do. Now a book of Mueller's writings and photos is due out in October, assembled by Berlin-based Chloe Griffin who is also featured in a movie by Yony Leyser, Desire Will Set You Free, a John Waters inspired tableau of Berlin's underworld.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.