In his new book, 'Role Models,' filmmaker John Waters reflects on those who made him such a contradiction

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By Ned Martel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

BALTIMORE -- A few blocks from the local lockup, John Waters is talking about his time in prison. Not that he was incarcerated, but he has spent years visiting prisoners, even rehabilitating a few in film and writing classes he taught in cellblock rooms, where paper-covered windows protected the privacy of teacher and pupil alike. Over scallops and crab cakes on North Charles Street, the trashtastic auteur confides that sometimes he sees ex-con pupils on the outside and notes their progress.

Many are now gainfully employed, he explains, taking pride even in those who didn't go legit: "Before, they got welfare, and now they're coke dealers." He pauses and considers the alternative. "Wouldn't you rather your child be a drug dealer than a drug addict? Sophie's choice these days."

No one would mistake John Waters for a moralist, and he doesn't disappoint on that front. "I'm for abortion: Basically, if you can't love your children, don't have it, because it can grow up to kill ours or me," he says. "That's not immoral. It's common sense."

But it may surprise his fans and detractors alike to think of him as a decidedly responsible citizen, helping inmates earn their community-college degrees. He has written treatises on provocation ("Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste"), filmed paeans to fetish ("A Dirty Shame"), and even capped his career of making midnight movies by letting two films morph into family-friendly Broadway musicals ("Hairspray" and "Cry-Baby").

His most arresting work -- as a journalist and even as an educator -- may have come through those regular trips to prison. "Role Models," his latest work of nonfiction, engages like a intimate ramble in which the amped-up narrator dishes about folks he's met in his many decades exploring America.

"I get along with all types of extremes," he says, and the proof is in his pages. He brings back tales of a Charm City barmaid, an amateur porn director and assorted post-fame celebrities, but his friendship with Leslie Van Houten, convicted for her bloody role in the LaBianca murders led by Charles Manson, enlivens his most plaintive and surprising chapter. Waters describes decades of visiting her in a California prison, his perceptions of her progress and his reckoning about having fun with something as ruinous as murder -- see also Kathleen Turner in "Serial Mom" or the "Polyester" teen who never thought she'd use macramé to kill.

As sympathetic as he is to Van Houten, who he thinks is long overdue for parole, he is mindful of the other side of the crime. "When I wrote that chapter, I wanted to be really fair to the victims," he says carefully. "They can never be wrong whatever they say . . . because they're speaking from a personal viewpoint and I'm writing from society's viewpoint, which is completely different." He swats away questions about Roman Polanski's travails, touching as they do on a separate Manson rampage. He has one Van-Houten-specific area of expertise and does not want to dishonor the dead or the grieving.

An arbiter of taste

In his postmodern maturity, Waters has been an interesting blend of free spirit and tireless worker. He has mapped out the zone between good taste (art-house cinema, books by Farrar Straus and Giroux) and bad (beehived housewives, suburban fetishists) and echoes Diana Vreeland in deploring only those with no taste -- "hair hoppers," as he calls anyone gussied up as a show of gaudy opulence. Dolly Parton, in teased and towering wigs comes up, but that's not what he means.

"She's a female female impersonator," he says. "She's different."

But that thin line between vaunted and vulgar is drawn as painstakingly as he pencils in the teeny row of bristles above his upper lip. Decades before Adam Lambert introduced guyliner to the "American Idol" mainstream, Waters was darkening his faux-sinister mustache. And he uses Maybelline. Every time. In his book, he relates how his proper Lutherville, Md., mother dropped in on him once in the hospital, bringing his designated makeup so he could apply it before confronting the nurses and the day.

He drives a Buick, loves a Johnny Mathis tune (a visit with the crooner fills another chapter in "Role Models"), goes to bed early every night except Friday. He is nearing the age when he can first collect checks from "Soasha Skurdy," as the local dialect calls the Social Security facility in nearby Woodlawn. His dining hour, 6 o'clock, is chosen not to capitalize on any early-bird special but because he needs to get to a rock show featuring John Lydon, the PiL. frontman previously known as Johnny Rotten.

It's part of his job, the maintenance of his fame, the tour-guiding duties by a celebrity for other celebrities when they pass through town. Their only other option, he notes, might be jazz singer Ethel Ennis, who probably wouldn't know the bar where the lesbians dress up like the prison-era Johnny Cash.


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