From Catholic schoolboy to cult auteur, it‘s been a long, strange journey for film-maker, writer and rock-a-hula raconteur John Waters, whose new movie Cry Baby sees the maestro of schlock shock finally embracing the mainstream. Trevor Johnston reports on how Maryland’s very own wizard ofsleaze is cleaning up his act by working with ex-porno queens, drug casualties, convicted terrorists . . .
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illiam Burroughs once called him ‘the Pope of Trash’. but these days John Waters is putting his cardinal celluloid sins behind him. The doyen of disgust who added canine coprophilia (go on, look it up) to the pantheon ofentertaining screen activities with his 1972 shocker Pink Flamingos. and whose 1981 offering Polyester used the scientific breakthrough of Odorama to bring the great smell offlatulence to choking audiences everywhere, has cast aside his days of cultdom to approach the mainstream. Or at least the Waters version ofit.
For the first time he is making movies that fail to evoke third degree consternation on the part of the British censor. His last hugely enjoyable offering Hairspray (PG) charted the beehive-infested dancescape of an early 605 television pop show. bringing together the familiar Waters components of transvestism, decorative kitsch and the age-old conﬂict between style fascists and the soul underground into a more user-friendly package than ever before. His latest release Cry Baby retains the same knowing humour and wry sense ofthe parodic. This time his excavation of American youth culture’s past extravagances reaches even further back to the Baltimore of 1954, where nascent rock’n’roll’s driving beat has energised the teen community as never before and juvenile delinquency is sweeping the nation quicker than the hula hoop.
‘In the 'early 505, the kids in Baltimore seemed to divide into two camps. each ofwhich were pretty hip in their own way,‘ recalls 44-year old writer/director/raconteur Waters, himselfan icon of cool as he models trademark pencil moustache and a natty single-breasted number in (gasp!) burgundy mohair. ‘The Squares were pretty much the rich kids and they wore button-down shirts, crew cuts and the whole preppy look, with pony tails and crinoline skirts for the girls. The Drapes, on the other hand. were like the outcasts of society and they all wore leather jackets. The guys greased their hair and the Drapettes had really heavy make-up and those dangerous pointed brassieres. Cry Baby is about a very cute Square girl who‘s driven into the arms ofJohnny Depp and juvenile delinquency by her raging hormones and rockabilly music.
‘Obviously, it‘s a put-on ofall those early juvenile delinquent-type movies, a genre I’ve always loved but which has never really been properly satirised. I mean, have you ever seen Girls'Town, where Paul Anka sings A ve Maria to Mamie Van Doren? Wild, truly wild. Or how about High School Confidential where Jerry Lee Lewis comes in playing piano on the back ofa pick-up truck. These are classics.’ Waters beams with the enthusiasm and knowledge of a man who knows his retro backwards.
Working in his home town of Baltimore, the younger. sicker Waters built upon rarely seen cheapo shockfests like Eat Your Make-Up to conjure up a series of7()s cult winners with longtime associate and true star, the late Divine (real name Glenn Milstead) in which unforgettable. hilarious acts ofgross indecency were the keynote. Pink Flamingos, the most notorious effort from the period, climaxes with the rotund one cheerfully munching down a scrumptiously fresh mound of doggy doo, but equally memorable perhaps is the sight in Female Trouble of Divine (playing both virginal runaway and unscrupulous estate car driver) committing an ungainly sexual assault upon himself/herself.
Low on budget, high on offensiveness, films like these revealed a striking, ifquestionable, talent more than prepared to explore the outer comic limits of the camp sensibility and the audience’s capacity for vileness.
More recently, the aforementioned Hairspray has introduced Waters’ delight in period camp to a much wider audience, while Cry Baby (with an $8 million budget that’s more than he spent on all his other features put together!) sees him going to town on pastiche production numbers aplenty. His Please Mister/ailer sequence. a majestic creation replete with striped correctional clobber, probably ranks alongside Elvis Aaron Presley‘s efforts in the penitential rocking stakes.
Even so, it‘s the extraordinary cast of Cry Baby that’s generating the lion’s share of the media attention. Heading the credit roll is US teen sensation Johnny Depp (his top-rated cop show 21 Jump Street screens on satellite over here) making his long-awaited movie debut as Wade ‘Cry Baby’ Walker, the sensitive Drape whose love for his Square babe is stonger than prison bars and the prejudices of well-heeled society. ‘Johnny’s really mortified by it, but in the States kids under eighteen start sobbing and falling on their knees as soon as they see him‘, adds Waters. ‘I checked out all the teen mags, went out and bought ‘em, like a paedophile, and he was in every one. But you‘re gonna be hearing a lot more ofJohnny because he‘s in the new Tim Burton movie Edward Scissorhands. And he‘s engaged to Winona Ryder. And, well, he‘s a fine actor too.’
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