"To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste." -- John Waters
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Revenge of the Gross-Out King! John Waters's 'Pink Flamingos' Enjoys a 25th-Year RevivalBy Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 1997
Variety called "Pink Flamingos," John Waters's 1972 trash comedy classic, "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made."
Twenty-five years later, the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America agrees. "Pink Flamingos" was released before the MPAA's ratings code came into effect, but for the 25th anniversary edition, which opens Friday at the Key, New Line actually asked for an NC-17.
"I loved the idea of the ratings board having to sit down to watch it," writer-director Waters says with a wicked smile. "Talk about an endless screening! It's as rude as it ever was, maybe ruder because of the political correctness issue."
In awarding "Pink Flamingos" its normally dreaded NC-17 rating, the MPAA noted that it contained "extreme perversities shown in an explicit way." Were the film to be shown on television -- that's never happened in the United States, even on cable -- it would certainly wreak havoc on content-based ratings. For starters: rape, murder, incest, cannibalism, cop-killing, bestiality, necrophilia, sadism, masochism and coprophagy ("critics wrote reviews with medical dictionaries so they could get it in," Waters notes).
The notorious final scene, shot in a single take, shows 300-pound drag queen Divine following a dog and sampling its brand-new droppings to the tune of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window."
Having recently returned from Sundance, where "Pink Flamingos" was honored, Waters mulls over his notorious film's prospects had the independent film festival been in existence in 1972.
"Twenty-five years ago, Slumdance might have accepted it," he says brightly.
Though he is proud of his closer-to-the-mainstream films "Hairspray," "Cry-Baby" and "Serial Mom," Waters clearly has special affection for the film that put him in the public eye and helped establish the midnight-movie industry. It helped launch New Line Cinema as one of the most successful independent distributors, turned Divine into a cult star and set standards of poor taste that few filmmakers have ever managed to lower. The original Variety review is now the centerpiece of the anniversary poster.
"Pink Flamingos" is likely to provoke concurrent waves of nostalgia and revulsion. It revolves around a gross-out battle for the title of Filthiest People Alive, pitting trailer-dwelling tabloid queen Babs Johnson (Divine) and her peculiar family (feeble, egg-obsessed Mama Edie, bestiality-prone delinquent son Crackers and voyeuristic companion Cotton) against Connie and Raymond Marble, who kidnap female hitchhikers, chain them in their suburban cellar, impregnate them and sell the babies to lesbian couples. Waters originally called the film "an exercise in poor taste," and he clearly worked up a sweat making it.
Small wonder Newsday described "Pink Flamingos" as going "past angst, past shock, past entertainment . . . pure pathology." Even Fran Lebowitz, writing in Interview, called it "one of the sickest movies ever made . . . and one of the funniest." Funny enough to be included in the Museum of Modern Art's Bicentennial Salute to American Film Comedy.
Dubbed the Pope of Trash by no less than William Burroughs, Waters has earned a few other titles as well: the Prince of Puke, the Baron of Bad Taste, the Rapscallion of Repulsion, the Godfather of Gross. On the Godfather front, there's a case to be made for spiritual paternity of the American independent film movement. In "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema," Josh Pierson writes that "the Waters combination of amateurish performance, primitive visual style and rampant grotesquerie was almost innocent. . . . He had an attitude/vision, which he got on screen through primitive means with virtually no money by assembling a support group in his home town and capitalizing on their meager talents through a combination of charm and shock value."
So why not celebrate "Pink Flamingos" with a 25th-anniversary edition featuring a new, improved print and 14 minutes of recently uncovered outtakes? Like George Lucas's special-edition "Star Wars," it cost more to restore "Pink Flamingos" than the $12,000 it cost Waters to make it in the first place.
"The sixteen mm print's been blown up again and rescanned, and the soundtrack's cleaned up -- it still looks bad, don't worry," says Waters. "It looks as good as it's ever going to look, not that they made it anything that it isn't." There will be a new home video from New Line and a Criterion laserdisc, and for the first time, a companion soundtrack on Hip-O Records. Waters pronounces "Pink Flamingos" "rehabilitated and ready to go forever."
That the film has overcome its modest origins to compete for the nostalgia dollar with "Star Wars" and "The Godfather" amuses Waters.
"It was pot humor, this movie," he confesses. "None of us were on pot when we made `Pink Flamingos,' but I was when I thought it up. I certainly didn't think we'd be talking about it 25 years later."
The movie, Waters's first color film (but not his first off-color offering), featured wicked sendups of middle-class values and suburban culture that fit right in with the times. "The Weathermen were a big influence," Waters explains. "We wanted to do cultural terrorism in a funny way."
It helped to have a troupe of uninhibited actors and actresses, drawn from a circle of friends and social misfits that included Waters's grade-school pal Glenn Milstead, who would later transform into Divine. "Divine was not a drag queen but a character actor," Waters points out. "In my scripts, Divine was never revealed as a man at the end; Divine just always played a woman, or a man."
Showing "Pink Flamingos" back then wasn't all that easy. "I'd had the nine best test screenings you could possibly have in Baltimore, where people sort of staggered out of the auditorium." The film was first shown at the University of Baltimore, sponsored by the Baltimore Film Fest, the only way to screen it without going through Maryland's notorious official film censor, Mary Avara. "She hated me," says Waters. "A year later, when `Pink Flamingos' played commercially, she cut three scenes out." She left in the scene with Divine and the dog, "which I thought showed a lot about Maryland's community standards," Waters says.
When Bob Shaye of New Line first saw the film, "he kept stopping the projector and rewinding to make sure he'd seen what he thought he saw," Waters recalls. "And when he invited me to New York -- and I don't know to this day whether he was kidding -- he said, `Don't bring your friends!' I think many people then really thought we were those people!"
By a strange confluence of events, the time was ripe for "Pink Flamingos." New Line's first pickup, "Reefer Madness," had found a weekend audience at the adventurous new hour of midnight, followed by Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" and, later, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." "Pink Flamingos" -- first promoted as "Pink Flamingo" -- was booked into New York's Elgin Theater for one night in February 1973, drawing a decent crowd of 100 people ("all our friends," Waters now confesses) and earning a second shot the following weekend. Thanks to word of mouth, both shows sold out.
The film settled in at the Elgin for the next year and began expanding into other cities, the first being Washington, where it ran for a year of midnights at the now-closed Biograph. Its run at Los Angeles's New Art extended to a full decade. In Boston, "Pink Flamingos" opened in a gay porno theater.
"I went insane," says Waters, who is gay. "It's not that I was against gay porno theaters, it's just that `Pink Flamingos' always did terrible in real exploitation theaters. Surrealism and irony are two things the exploitation audience hates -- they know you're making fun of them."
It was an era where the MPAA had coined the X rating but had forgotten to copyright it. "At the time, you could give yourself an X and it was not a commercial liability," Waters recalls. "People had XXXXXXs flashing outside the theater. We got in trouble later when it came out on video not rated; it got busted as recently as five years ago in a video store in Florida. We sometimes get in trouble when people who've only seen `Hairspray' manage to rent it. They think, oh, it's just another John Waters movie, `Pink Flamingos' . . . sounds very nice . . ."
The film has been declared illegal in Hicksville, Long Island, and in Switzerland (both declared it obscene). The film has been shown uncut on television in Austria. In England, it's never been shown anywhere uncut. "Overseas it plays as an American horror movie," says Waters, who has versions in several languages.
Though the director suggests "it was unsafe to like me until `Hairspray,' " he had some fans in high places long before that lighthearted musical comedy pushed him into the mainstream in 1988.
"Lee Atwater was my really big fan," says Waters. After a retrospective at the Biograph in the early '80s, Waters got a call from Atwater, who invited him for a private tour of the White House.
"It was like being over at someone's house when they were babysitting," Waters recalls with a smile. "Because of his politics, I felt like Anne Frank visiting Himmler -- it was really strange for me but I liked him very much, and we didn't talk about politics at all. We talked about movies, and it was great. His knowledge of exploitation was phenomenal, and he knew every single thing about every trashy movie ever. I was really impressed, he really knew his stuff."
There has been talk of a sequel, but a true sequel would be virtually impossible now. Milstead died of a heart attack in 1989. Also gone are Edith Massey (the Egg Lady), Paul Swift (the Egg Man), David Lochary (Raymond Marble) and Cookie Mueller (Cookie).
"Pink Flamingos" will initially open in 10 cities, and Waters jokes that "we spent so much on this version, I may never see another penny." He's reticent about the film's financial grosses, saying only that "every figure I've ever read is a total lie. Five million? Totally not true."
Still, the film was successful enough that Waters was able to pay back his backer -- his father, actually -- with interest and had enough left over to make "Female Trouble." To this day, his parents have never seen "Pink Flamingos."
"They've read about it!" Waters notes. They did watch him on a recent episode of "The Simpsons" in which Waters provided the voice (and the model) for John, a gay kitsch antiques dealer who Homer fears might turn Bart gay.
"I had fun," Waters says, "though to see myself as a cartoon character was weird even for me."