John Water's "Role Models," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 20, 2010; B06


By John Waters

Farrar Straus Giroux. 301 pp. $25

It's just about impossible to believe, but John Waters, the ineffable Bad Boy of Baltimore -- "The King of Puke," "the Pope of Trash," the "Cult Filmmaker" -- is now 64 years old. The man who gave the world such memorable if occasionally barf-inducing films as "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket," "Mondo Trasho," "Pink Flamingos," "Polyester" and "Hairspray" will be pulling Social Security checks any day now, leaning back in his Barcalounger and reminiscing about the good old days when porn was really porn and dog poop was on the menu.

As evidence that Waters is in a nostalgic mood, we now have "Role Models," in which he pays tribute to various men and women who in one way or another helped him become the man he is. If that inspires you to murmur, "Thanks a lot but no thanks," well, you're entitled, but Waters is a greater National Treasure than 90 percent of the people who are given "Kennedy Center Honors" each December. Unlike those gray eminences of the show-business establishment, Waters doesn't kowtow to the received wisdom, he flips it the bird.

So it stands to reason that those whom he salutes as his role models are not your standard-issue Boy Scouts. A few of them are well known -- Johnny Mathis, Tennessee Williams, Little Richard -- while others are known only within the tight little circles in which they work their magic: the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo; Lady Zorro, "the lesbian stripper from Baltimore's notorious red light district The Block"; the "outsider pornographers" Bobby Garcia and David Hurles.

Some of these people you might like to ask over for drinks, others you might . . . not. Johnny Mathis, of course, would be the perfect guest, and probably would take fizzy water instead of a gin Gibson. "I wish I were Johnny Mathis" is how this book begins. "So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect. Effortlessly boyish at over seventy years old, with a voice that still makes all of America want to make out. . . . A man whose 'Greatest Hits' album was on the Billboard charts for 490 consecutive weeks. Versus me, a cult filmmaker whose core audience, no matter how much I've crossed over, consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities."

Still, "Johnny Mathis understands a lot about me. I can tell. He's a gentleman who lives alone and he's from another era." But is he gay? Waters naturally wants to know, but when Waters interviews Mathis at his house in Los Angeles, he politely keeps his own counsel on the subject, as he always has, but he leaves an opening for a classic Waters riff:

"I've always been pretty up-front about my sexuality (even though Mink Stole today says she didn't even know I was gay for a long time), but I understand Hollywood royalty's reticence about revealing anything personal, hetero or homo. Gus Van Sant and I always joke about the press saying we are 'openly' gay. What's that supposed to mean? It sounds like we're arriving at a premiere shrieking, 'Hey, Mary! Got any Judy Garland records?' "

As that passage suggests, outrageousness, far more than sexuality, is at the core of Waters's persona. "Tennessee Williams was my childhood friend," he tells us elsewhere. "I yearned for a bad influence and Tennessee was one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing, and dangerously funny. . . . Tennessee never seemed to fit the gay stereotype even then, and sexual ambiguity and turmoil were always made appealing and exciting in his work. 'My type doesn't know who I am,' he stated according to legend, and even if the sex lives of his characters weren't always healthy, they certainly seemed hearty. Tennessee Williams wasn't a gay cliché, so I had the confidence to try to not be one myself. Gay was not enough."

No doubt you are beginning to understand that "Role Models" isn't half as much about these men and women Waters claims to value, even venerate, as it is about Waters himself. His chapter on Rei Kawakubo opens with this declaration: "Fashion is very important to me. My 'look' for the last twenty years or so has been 'disaster at the dry cleaners.' I shop in reverse. When I can afford to buy a new outfit, something has to be wrong with it. Purposely wrong." Enter "the genius fashion dictator" Rei Kawakubo, who "specializes in clothes that are torn, crooked, permanently wrinkled, ill-fitting, and expensive." Waters admires (and actually wears!) her over-the-top clothing (if "clothing" is the word for it) and has a weakness for her fragrance, Odeur 53, which "to me smells exactly like Off! insect repellent." Among its ingredients, according to Rei, are "the freshness of oxygen, wash drying in the wind, nail polish, burnt rubber and the mineral intensity of carbon," to which Waters responds: "That's exactly what I want to smell like! How did she know?"

To me it sounds as if Rei Kawakubo is as much a put-on artist as Waters himself, but what do I know about fashion? Speaking of which, there's Waters's trademark, his famous pencil-thin moustache, which he grew "in a misguided attempt to steal Little Richard's identity." There was a problem:

"It's tough for a white man who isn't that hairy to grow one. Sure, I shaved with a razor on top and trimmed the bottom with cuticle scissors, just like I do every day now, but it still looked kind of pitiful. Then 'Sick,' the friend of mine from the Provincetown tree fort who had moved to Santa Barbara and changed her nickname to 'Sique,' gave me some fashion advice when I was staying with her. 'Just use a little eyebrow pencil and it will work better,' she advised, and then showed me how. Presto! An 'iconic' look: a ridiculous fashion joke that I still wear forty years later. Surprised? Don't be! It is called a 'pencil moustache,' isn't it? And there's only one pencil that does the trick -- Maybelline Expert Eyes in Velvet Black. My entire identity depends on this magic little wand of sleaze."

Well. I could quote John Waters all day long. The time in 1957, when he was 11 years old and "shoplifted" a Little Richard record. He put it on the player at his grandmother's: "The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr. Spock hadn't warned them about this." Or the time he visited the porn director Bobby Garcia: "As I pull up in a ridiculous Mercedes-Benz that I didn't order but was upgraded to by the car rental place, I feel a sickening sense of entitlement. I hate fancy cars. In real life I drive a plain Buick that looks like a narcotics-agent car or the vehicle of the local monsignor. Who wants to be noticed in his car? Suppose I still might want to commit a crime? Who would ever want a car a witness could describe?"

And so forth. Yes, every once in a while Waters turns serious, mainly in his chapter about Leslie Van Houten, the "Manson girl" who has been in prison for four decades for her involvement in those dreadful crimes and who now deserves to be paroled, as Waters correctly believes, but heartfelt though these moments are, the outrageous ones are echt Waters. He has the ability to show humanity at its most ridiculous and make that funny rather than repellent. To quote his linear ancestor W.C. Fields: It's a gift.

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