Think of John Waters as a racy Wizard of Oz. Generations of American storytellers have chronicled provincial misfits and artists leaving their homes and finding their true colors in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. But Waters does the reverse, attracting international talent to his native Baltimore and convincing them that Charm City and the Emerald City are fully equal.
This fall he did it again while shooting "A Dirty Shame." Conceptually, it's a hoot. In the 1979 gang classic "The Warriors," Walter Hill pictures a teenage wild bunch called "the Warriors" and sends them running for their lives through the streets of New York. In "A Dirty Shame," Waters imagines rival groups of families and friends from different generations and environments, names them for their clashing erotic mores -- "Sex Addicts" and "Neuters" -- and sends them running up and down Baltimore's Harford Road.
One October night you could have mistaken Waters for the wizard behind the curtain as he watched Sex Addicts and Neuters converge in a biker bar, the Holiday House. After setting up each shot, he retired to a dark corner of the saloon and sat glued to the video monitoring the action as Selma Blair, best known for playing a Harvard Law School snob in "Legally Blonde," kept her balance despite huge prosthetic breasts.
The difference between Waters and the wizard is that Waters is no humbug. This guy loves to make movies -- and by now he knows how. "A Dirty Shame" is his attempt to see whether the guerrilla comedy of early low-budget shockers like his "Female Trouble" can reach exhilarating lows when explored with (he should pardon the phrase) style and craft.
Suzanne Shepherd, familiar to HBO-watchers as Carmela Soprano's mom, plays Blair's grandmother. She's the matriarch of a family-owned convenience store and a leader of the Neuters -- though her daughter, played by Tracey Ullman, has had a concussion that's turned her into a Sex Addict, and Blair is a Sex Addict icon who goes by the stage name "Ursula Udders."
Shepherd was doing a wonderful job of conveying shock and revulsion at Waters' sex-charged heightening of the Holiday House scene. But when Shepherd first entered with Chris Isaak, who plays her Neuter son-in-law, she pushed the square-jawed singer-actor out of the way. This move propelled Waters from his corner to suggest that an older woman new to a flesh-and-leather milieu might not be so hasty to navigate it alone.
Waters' early films had a giddy amateurishness. Now he cares about actors' beats and timing. In one shot, Shepherd kept missing her second mark, but Waters guided her through it patiently. And Shepherd, an acting teacher at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, loved him for it.
"Acting is acting no matter what the context," Shepherd said later, "and if you act only from the shoulders up, you're not acting, you're just making faces."
Of course, appearing in a Waters film requires more acting than usual from the shoulders down. During a break, Waters admitted that his mother asked whether "A Dirty Shame" would take the glow off the widespread mainstream infatuation with "Hairspray," his 1988 cult film that was turned into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Waters chuckled and said, "The halo from 'Hairspray' was getting to feel a little tight."
The Oscar Wilde of outre or overlooked Americana, Waters is an eccentric aesthete and a democrat, and his sophisticated blending of grit, glitz and art-world adventure is part of his appeal. He treasures wit but prizes individuality above all. (So did Wilde.) He's both an upside-down dandy and a real jim-dandy: Ullman looks at him working the room in his black turtleneck with a jacket striped on just one side and says, "He has such great taste in clothes."
Waters is fond of the Holiday House because "it's an outsider world that I'm not included in but am accepted by." Its uninhibited personality emerges more from the clientele than from the sports-and-beer brand decorations. Waters has used a number of bar habitues in the film. They spill out of the saloon and into the rear function room that serves as the set's holding area, exuding a gruff good humor.
The members of the spot's dominant motorcycle gang, the Fat Boys, long ago befriended Waters; he's a veteran of their locally famous luaus. But no luau ever quite resembled the wingding that Waters is throwing tonight. In the scene's calm, conventional opening moments, the Fat Boys shoot glances at the dance stage erected for Blair's character, Caprice Stickles, a.k.a. Ursula Udders. They are sad because the stage is empty; Ursula has apparently mended her exhibitionist ways. But they stay full of good cheer by tossing back beers as a band belts out an unprintable sing-along.