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STILL WATERS : The Auteur of the Bizarre Is Making Hollywood Movies, but His Heart Remains in White-Trash Balimore

April 08, 1990|MARGY ROCHLIN

ONCE, WE SAW someone get his nose bit off here."

John Waters offers this memory as if it were an unimpeachable reason to love The Club Charles, where he is now sitting.

The Charles is Waters' favorite bar in Baltimore, his hometown and the setting for his peculiar contributions to American film making. The place features a giant finger that hangs from the ceiling and points toward the entrance, as if to urge patrons back onto the street. It's a Tuesday night and the club is nearly deserted, though the weekend crowd, Waters claims, is the "most mixed ever--blacks, whites, young, old, transvestites." Of course, the club was even better in its former incarnation as the Wigwam.

"It was the scariest bar in the entire country, full of drunken hillbillies," recalls Patricia Moran in a complimentary tone. Moran, Waters' sidekick of 25 years, is instinctively slumped against him.

Vestiges of Wigwam wildness must still be floating through the air. For the past 20 minutes, a hulking man in a baseball cap has been dementedly glaring at Waters and Moran from his bar stool nearby. Waters strikes a pose of calculated disinterest that is worthy of Ronald Colman. Gracefully he tucks his palms into the pockets of his finely tailored black jacket, crosses one chartreuse corduroy trouser leg over the other and looks away.

At 43, Waters still enjoys such minuscule brushes with danger. In fact, this fascination is what the John Waters celluloid world of cross-dressers, former B-girls and various hard cases is about. This, after all, is the man who transformed his corpulent childhood neighbor, Harris Glenn Milstead, into Divine, a 300-pound drag queen who in Waters' "Pink Flamingos" competed with baby sellers for the title of Filthiest Person Alive--and won.

From the very beginning, Waters gravitated to "people who were everything my parents were against." Even in high school, he'd drag home only the most alarming reprobates, hoping to send his vehemently middle-class family into a tizzy. Take "the girl who had a beehive hairdo and no teeth," he says. "My mother wept."

The baseball-capped man finally slides off his perch and appears poised to leap right on top of them. Abruptly he exits. "Once, we saw someone's nose get bit off," Waters says, his dark gray eyes following the would-be assailant.

How horrible.

"Why?" shrugs Moran. "Wasn't our noses."

"It got sewed right back on," Waters adds in a Baltimore drawl. He flashes an ambiguous smile, one that seems both wry and soothing. "Besides, he wasn't Montgomery Clift to start off with."

THIS LIGHTER SIDE of far-fetched mayhem perhaps best defined the naughty thrill behind what Waters calls his "early atrocities." What midnight movie fans came to expect was all-around offensiveness: chicken decapitations and whiny soliloquies, unfolding with what was assumed to be spontaneity. But, actually, Waters was a by-the-book director--every perversion was carefully detailed in his talky scripts, no ad-libbing allowed. These cheapie shock flicks had a style all their own--the scratchy, garish cinematography was intentional (though, because of Waters' anorexic bank account, also unavoidable). For the uninitiated, the story line of the magnificently dented "Female Trouble" (1974) tells it all: Dawn Davenport, an explosively temperamental teen-ager (played by Divine), runs away from home, hitchhikes her way into the arms of a slobby no-account named Earl Peterson (also played by Divine) who impregnates and then abandons her to a life of prostitution. Playing out the sorry hand fate has dealt her, Dawn's rapidly loosening hold on reality leads her to commit mass homicide--as the climax of her trampoline nightclub act, she blows away the audience. The grand finale? Our heroine jerking delightedly as she fries in the electric chair.

In "Multiple Maniacs" (1970), "Pink Flamingos" (1972) and "Desperate Living" (1977), Waters continued to refine his comic flair for no-apologies filth. It wasn't until "Polyester" (1981), a romantic melodrama starring Divine and '50s teen idol Tab Hunter, that Waters made a film that "didn't try to scare anyone." But when 1988's "Hairspray," a teen-dance sendup, became a commercial hit, it signaled more than the fact that Waters' overactive imagination had begun spewing forth PG images. Financed for $2.6 million by New Line Cinema, the independent production company that distributed all of Waters' films, "Hairspray" took in $7 million in theatrical distribution and continues to make money on tape rentals.

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