Indecent Exposure

50 Years of John Waters’ Shocking Bad Taste

BY: Claire Connors

Call John Waters the Bad (Taste) Boy of Cinema. Ever since this Baltimore native started making films—he received his first 8mm camera when he was 16—he’s been straddling the not-so-great divide between art and trash. As a child, he was hugely influenced by one of his first movie experiences, Lili, starring Leslie Caron and a bunch of puppets. Equally inspired by the violent nature of the then-popular puppet plays featuring Punch and Judy, the precocious seven-year-old Waters started entertaining other children at birthday parties with twisted and even more vicious versions of that misogynist puppet show. Thus began Waters’ early understanding of the entertainment value of both the shocking and the macabre.

By the late 60s, early fans of independent film were already aware of Waters’ sick, not to mention hilarious, cinematic adventures. Working closely with his childhood friend, Glenn Milstead, who eventually became the groundbreaking transvestite performer, Divine, Waters began making short, black comedies, all set in Baltimore. As he found his footing in filmmaking, Waters became an underground superstar. His movies Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living—dubbed the Trash Trilogy—all starred Divine, and somehow, despite, or perhaps because of, the vulgarity and over-the-top campiness, became international cult hits.

But it was his game-changing film, Hairspray (1988), again starring the inimitable Divine, that made Waters the mainstream success that he is today. That culturally vital film, set in a racially divided Baltimore circa 1963, not only gave Divine the recognition she deserved, it introduced Waters and his message of equality—for both African Americans and LGBT folks—to a huge national audience, one that was not necessarily his base. Heh, heh.

The movie was made into a giant Broadway musical hit and then that production was remade into another version film, with John Travolta slipping into Divine’s triple D cup bustier—Divine passed away at age 42, before she could see the musical version of her film. More mainstream films followed, including the Johnny Depp starrer, Cry-Baby (1990).

The auteur never stopped at filmmaking, however. Since the 1990s, Waters “the artist,” has been producing fine art as well, making photo-based pieces, videos, sculptures, and sound work, all of which will be on display in the upcoming exhibition aptly entitled, Indecent Exposure. Beginning next month, The Baltimore Museum of Art will be honoring their native son with his first local retrospective. Considering Waters is literally the Pencil-thin Mustachioed Poster Child of Baltimore, we say it’s high time for this sort of recognition.

To coincide with the exhibit, the museum is releasing the book, Indecent Exposure ($50 on Amazon). Packed with photographs and illustrations, the book covers Waters’ life and creative endeavors from childhood through today. If you can’t make it to Baltimore for this much-deserved tribute to a national treasure, be sure to pick up a copy of this fascinating book about the truly fascinating John Waters.

Indecent Exposure opens at The Baltimore Museum of Art on October 7th, running through January 6th, 2019, and the book comes out October 19th.