AFTER A DECADE of making notorious low-budget films like "Pink Flamingos," Mondo Trasho," "Multiple Maniacs" and "desperate Living," Baltimore filmmaker John Waters has hit the big time. His first 35mm film, "Polyester," was the sixth-highest-grossing release in America two weeks ago (it opens at the Key Theater on Wednesday). "Polyester" centers on the trials and tribulations of the Fishpaw family in suburban Baltimore: porn king Elmer, foot-fetishist son Dexter, sex-crazed daughter Lulu and, riding herd, mama Francine, played by 300-pound transvestite Divine, who once vied for the title of "Filthiest Person in the World." Divine usually plays aggressive villians, but this time family trouble drives her to drink and degradation. Happily, she's rescuded by the . . . attentions . . . of heroic figure Todd Tomorrow, played by perennial matinnee idol Tab Hunter.
A suprise hit at the recent Cannes Film Festival, "Polyester" was wrapped up for $350,000 and some odd scents: It is the first film in Odorama, 10 distinct smells elicited from scratch-and-sniff cards given to each moviegoer, who then scratches on cue from numbers flashed on the screen. Critics who hold that "Polyester" stinks will only provide support for Waters' cult following.
Like George Romero in Pittsburgh, Waters has based all his films in Baltimore, using Baltimore actors and crews, creating a Theater of the Absurd mystique that had made its pervious films staples of the midnight-movie circuit. "Polyester," his first non-X-rated film, will bring that vision to a much wider audience.
"Making films in Baltimore has helped me because . . . it's a little bit . . . odd," Waters explains. Sitting in the study of his Baltimore apartment overlooking the massive Druid Hill Park ("Every time I need to shoot country, I go out to the park; it's like the MGM lot"), Waters looks like a caricature of a '40s matinee idol, an emaciated Ronald Coleman. His slight, gentle features are accented by a pencil-thin mustache. The walls of his apartment are filled with one-sheets film posters for "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS," "Nuevo Punk Story" (the Italian title for "Desperate Lving"), "Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill" ("one of my all-time favorite movies") and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." (
The good-natured perversity of Water's own films has made Baltimore more "real" to filmgoers all over the world, but Waters is quick to his native city's defense. "I don't think I necessarily paint a bad picture of Baltimore.I think there's a whole other side that the Chamber of Commerce does not push. The New Baltimore doesn't impress me. All that means is that everybody moves here from Washington and the rents go up. You can always tell -- there's plants in people's windows on blocks where there never were before; that's a sign the rent's going up."
Despite the irreverant portrait he paints of Baltimore, Waters, 35, has always gotten support from the local government in the form of street permits, fire trucks and police cooperation. For "Desperate Living" (1977) he was able to film an electrocution at the city jail when the warden turned out to be a fan of his work. "Mayor Schaeefer told me, 'Keep shooting films in Baltimore.'" Had the mayor ever seen any of Waters' movies? Waters doesn't think so. Why not? "Well, first of all, they never sent me to jail."
"I glorify all that I like in Baltimore, which is the shabby side of it. I think there are eccentrics here like nowhere else in the world . . . and the city has an incredible tolerance for them. I've found almost all the stars in my films here. Walk around the streets, you'll see what I mean. You won't believe your eyes. This is the hairdo captial of the world; you still see huge teased hairdos. There were punks here years ago when the word meant someone who got raped in prison. That look was always here. It's a look I like a lot; it just makes me laugh. I've had people come from other places and say, 'God, I thought your films were exaggerations.'"
Most of Waters' films are less violent than noxious, a reflection of the films he grew up with. As a young child, one of Waters' favorite films was "The Wizard of Oz," but "only for the witch. I always liked villians. I felt sorry for Dorothy living on that dreary farm with that ugly dog. I couldn't figure out why she didn't want to stay with the witch in that great castle with all those winged monkeys."
The teen-aged Waters went to a Catholic school where "they used to read us all these films you'd go to Hell for is you saw, so I ran to see every one of them. I knew that was the kind of stuff I wanted to do." Waters' first few films in the late '60s "only cost $10,000" and there was no underground cinema scene to support them. "I had to get people's attention." In "Pink Flamingos," the attention-grabber was a scene of Divine being coprophagous. "I had to do something people would never be able to forget . . . and that film is still playing eight years later. The people who are seeing it now were 10 years old when I made it. I've managed to offend two generations," Waters laughs. "I think people may have been grossed out, but they also laugh at being grossed out. That's all I'm trying to do: make people laugh."
The relationship with Divine goes back to high school days. "I knew I wanted to meet him when he'd be waiting for the bus with a different color hair every day. I could see my father visually shudder. And I really wanted to meet someone who could cause that kind of reaction just waiting for a bus." Divine and Waters teamed up on some early 8mm efforts before the young director "sort of guided him into being a Jayne Mansfield type. We both always liked Jayne Mansfield and Victor Mature, but Divine was always a little closer to Mansfield than Mature so we just went along that way." Now, "his mom signs autographs as 'Divine's mother'" from her Florida retirement home.
Waters' own parents are very conservative but still helped him finance some of the early films. "I'd pay it all back to them before I'd ask for more," says Waters of that early financing. "I'm not rich, but I've lived on my films since 1973." Waters' film education consists of a three-month stay at NYU's film school ("All they did was make us watch 'Potemkin' over and over again," Waters shudders) before his expulsion on a marijuana charge in 1964. The now-straight Waters "got the last laugh because I showed my films there last year and got some of my tuition back."
When "Polyester" opened in New York several weeks ago, it did so in a big way: 50 theaters, a $450,000 gross in the first week, a $100,000 ad budget that was more than that of his first seven films combined. The New York Times gave "Polyester" two positive reviews, singling out the caustic humor and Tab Hunter's acting. "He [Hunter] said he hadn't had such good reviews in his life.
"I'd always liked him as a kid," Waters says, explaining how he came to approach Hunter, who had been doing mostly dinner theater over the last five years. "He was the ideal movie star. Nowadays the stars all look like people getting off work downtown. I called him up in Los Angeles, figuring all he could do was say no. Luckily, I guess, he hadn't seen my earlier pictures."
Waters sent the actor a script. Hunter thought it was funny, insisting only that he "wanted burgundy polyester; that as his own joke on it. So then I said, 'I've got to tell you, your leading lady's a man.' He said, 'Oh, so what!'"
Hunter flew in for the last 10 days of the 32-day shooting schedule. Waters filled in for him in rehearsals with Divine, who was so nervous she lost her voice on the first night's shooting with the real Hunter. "I admire his nerve, making this kind of movie since it makes fun of his whole career." The good reviews certainly haven't hurt Hunter, who is back in California working on two new films projects.
Most of Waters' films utilize a familiar stock company of Baltimore characters, including Divine and Edith Massey, the near-toothless bag-lady who runs a second-hand shop in Fells Point. Massey, who last week opened a Sam and Dave show in New York with her own punk band, is also the cover girl on the current issue of the high-brow journal "Film Comment." Like Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman, Waters find comfort in working with his own company of actors and actresses. "I'm not saying we do the same kind of thing. I'm not trying to make message movies, though critics read a lot into my films. It's just my sense of humor. I hope other people have it."
The recently defunct Maryland Board of Censors rarely appreciated Waters' humor, forcing him to court on several occasions to fight their cut demands. When censor Mary Avera saw "Polyester," Waters relates, "she said, "That's a beautiful home.' And we had intentionally tried to make it the ugliest house we could. We went out and bought totally new furniture, the ugliest polyester furniture we could find. The weirdest thing is that we sold it all to the neighbors when the filming was over. A lot of the neighbors are in the film. They play the neighbors."
Odorama came about because Waters wanted to pay tribute to the William Castle gimmick movies of his youth: buzzers under the seats, chicken corners, where moviegoers could follow a yellow lind up to a booth to get their money back if they were scared. "It's just another joke in the film," Waters points out. He would have liked to use the word Smellavision, but it's owned by Elizabeth Taylor as part of the Mike Todd estate. And somebody had already tried Aromarama, where big wind machines blew smells into the theater. "They had all nices smells, which was pretty dull," Waters snorts. "Polyester's" smells range from pizza and smelly sneakers to . . . well, it is a John Waters film.
Waters' next film is already taking shape in his mind. It will star Divine as identical triplets, two women and one man. "The only way for me to shock anybody any more would be to make a kid movie," the filmmaker sighs. "How about 'Divine Meets Benji?'" He'll make the still untitled film in Baltimore, since "I seem to find the right kind of thing here to make it work. There's no reason to go anywhere else."