On the Bright Side of Smut

John Waters returns to his sex-mad (but never mean) moviemaking roots

I'm admiring John Waters' socks—reverse colors, with giant polka dots—and he obligingly lifts the pant bottoms of his impeccably tailored suit so I can get a better look. Kicking off his green crocodile-skin loafers, American cinema's éminence grise of filth and smut plumps down cross-legged on the bed of his suite at the Four Seasons to discuss A Dirty Shame, his new comedy about a band of sex addicts who lay siege to a respectable working-class Baltimore neighborhood.

Ten years ago, when I interviewed Waters about Serial Mom, an amiable trifle starring Kathleen Turner as a suburban assassin of all who fail to recycle, he was feeling pleased about returning to R-rated territory after Hairspray and Cry-Baby, both commercial successes that drove fans of his early forays into the sociology of disgust to cry sellout.

But Serial Mom was a tea party compared to A Dirty Shame, in which that practiced shape-shifter Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a sex-hating grump whose slumbering libido gets a fresh outlook after she suffers a concussion and is recruited by Ray-Ray Perkins (Jackass' Johnny Knoxville), a generously hung tow-truck driver, to a group of similarly "afflicted" sex maniacs. Together, this band of solid citizens–turned–fiends of carnal bliss plays havoc with Sylvia's community of "Neuters," while delighting, at least for a while, her sex-starved husband (Chris Isaak) and her daughter (Selma Blair), a recovering go-go dancer with breasts the size of watermelons. Given that the sexual fetishes showcased in the film include licking dirty floors, running fingers through ground beef at the supermarket, dressing up as an adult baby, frottage (Patricia Hearst, in her fifth movie with Waters, is the frotteuse) and something called sploshing, only Waters could come on astonished that his new movie has been slapped with an NC-17. Especially since every one of these attractive proclivities, he assures me, can be found on the Internet, which was where Waters located the adult baby outfit worn by a middle-aged cop in the movie, and the copious websites devoted to hairy gay men called "bears." "I'm an old otter," Waters says with his trademark satyr's grin. "An otter is someone who's not fat or hairy yet, but will be."

Like many of Waters' films, A Dirty Shame is torn from an obscure headline—in this case an article he'd read about a tiny proportion of people who suffer concussions and later become sex-mad—which he then tortured into his own merrily anarchic genre mutant. "I wanted to do a Three Stooges sex comedy," he says. The film's deeper roots, so to speak, lie in Waters' lifelong fascination with sexual aberration. Raised Catholic in an upper-middle-class Republican family (his uncle was Undersecretary for the Interior in the Nixon administration), Waters was taught that he would go to hell if he saw any of the movies listed by the same Catholic Office of Film that has bestowed an "O" (for Offensive) rating on A Dirty Shame. In the mid-'50s, his idea of "let's pretend" was to imagine that he owned a dirty-movie theater. He kept scrapbooks on and redesigned ad campaigns for movies like Love Is My Profession and Baby Doll. I've heard these stories before, told in much the same way. Waters narrates his life as if it were one of his movies. The tone is jocular, jaunty, playful, as if to say, "Can you believe this lovable freak that I was?" It's delightful and seems intimate at the time, but one senses it's also a way of charming his listener into keeping her distance and not asking what she longs to ask but doesn't dare to: Just how dark and lonely was it to be a little boy who makes believe he owns a sexploitation movie theater? Years ago Waters told me that his benign leading lady, Divine, had in fact been a very angry man. Perhaps that's why Divine is dead and Waters, a self-professed optimist, is alive and thriving. Still, I can't imagine his childhood was an unmitigated lark. For someone who's devoted his career to teasing out the American id, Waters is remarkably good at keeping his own id under wraps.

Waters' interest in show business began when his parents took him to New York to be on The Howdy Doody Show—to this day he can deliver a rousing imitation of the show's warm-up chant. He became a Variety subscriber when he was 12 years old (at that time the trade paper reviewed everything, porn flicks included). The sexploitation films of Russ Meyer and others, about which he'd read in The Village Voice, were huge hits in Baltimore: "I think we were the exploitation capital of the world," says Waters proudly. At 20, Waters started making dirty movies of his own. Like many countercultural happenings during that period, Roman Candles, Eat Your Make-Up, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs played in Episcopal or Unitarian churches. "That way I could escape the censors," he says. "They weren't going to bust a church."

Always an equal-opportunity satirist, Waters goes out of his way to poke fun at the hippies and liberals who were his audience. The funniest characters in A Dirty Shame are a starry-eyed liberal couple from Washington, D.C., who come slumming to Waters' beloved blue-collar Harford Road area in search of "diversity," only to flee in horror when the neighborhood is flooded with variety in the form of sexual perversions they never bargained for.
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