Call him what you want — the Pope of Trash, the King of Filth, the Duke of Dirt — but whatever you do, don’t call John Waters uninspired. Or typical. Or even palatable. The director has spent more than five decades meticulously cultivating a repertoire of films, books and artwork that’s so deeply and iconically steeped in his own unique brand of “filth” that it’s nearly impossible to separate the man from his mythos.
With dozens of films under his (probably Saint Laurent) belt, this rancid Renaissance man is a verifiable legend, having churned out a flurry of now-cult classics that make some NC-17 films look like bake sales. Waters is most famous for “giving bad taste a good name” with everything he does, and that’s reason enough to celebrate him. But in honor of his 75th birthday, we’re taking a look at our favorite of his filthiest contributions to the world of camp — and some of the surprisingly wholesome moments that make us cherish him even more.
He Fostered Our Fondness for Filth
It’s impossible to appreciate Waters without mentioning his most meaningful gift to us and the concept that’s defined his entire career. But in Waters’ world, filth isn’t what accumulates under your fingernails after tending your container garden — it’s a lifestyle, a sort of enigmatic, you’ll-know-it-when-you-feel-it vibe that you just have to immerse yourself in.
Filth embodies everything Waters does. It’s a shameless appreciation for, and wholehearted embrace of, things society would generally deem offensive, inappropriate, shocking, indecent, controversial and grotesque — or all of the above. It’s a debaucherous West Side Story-esque competition to determine who’s the dirtiest person alive (1972’s Pink Flamingos). It’s a vain hero’s quest to embark on a crime spree and gather photographic evidence of her depraved deeds (1974’s Female Trouble). And it’s even the accidental conversion of everyone in a straitlaced Maryland community into insatiable sex addicts (2004’s A Dirty Shame).
It’s also why we can’t help but revere the man. Filth exposes us to things we might not have seen before and gets us thinking. It helps us shift our outlook on groups and ways of life that are unfamiliar to us. Plus, it’s affirming and hilarious to see Waters’ characters brazenly breaking down the social norms we wish we had the courage to disrupt. We get to live vicariously, laugh, cry and gag all before the credits roll. Not to mention, Waters’ peddling of filth is still a pretty unique feat in the world of filmmaking.
He Brought Some Much-Needed Representation to The Simpsons
Since its first episode aired more than 30 years ago, The Simpsons has stirred up its fair share of controversies, which, in theory, sounds like a very Waters-esque thing to do. But the show didn’t always do wrong in the right way — though it took a step in the right-wrong direction when Waters appeared on a 1997 episode titled “Homer’s Phobia.”
In need of some quick cash to fund a home repair, Homer and Co. stop at a pawn shop of campy collectibles run by John, a.k.a. Waters playing an appropriately Simpsons-jaundiced version of himself. The family bonds with John and all seems peachy until Homer is informed John is gay and, suspecting that’s somehow influencing Bart, refuses to let his family visit the antiques dealer. But when John later saves their lives, Homer experiences a revelation and comes to accept the man for who he is.
That storyline is superficial through our 2021 eyes, sure, but at the time the episode first aired it was a big step forward in LGBTQ+ representation for The Simpsons — and for animated TV in general. Thanks to Waters’ character, “Homer’s Phobia” was honored with an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV, with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation calling Waters’ John “a shining example of how to bring intelligent, fair and funny representations of our community onto television.”
He’s an Accomplished Author
It’s not surprising that a man who said “We need to make books cool again” — and paired it with some famously choice advice — is seriously prolific when it comes to the written word. Waters, whose eclectic Baltimore home is fortified with a cache of “11,000-something books,” has penned more than a dozen titles of his own, dishing up diverse personalities, obscene plotlines and his own eccentric adventures and wisdom in a way that’s totally engrossing (and deliciously gross).
His first book, the aptly titled Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, was released all the way back in 1981, and he hasn’t stopped publishing since. He’s an accomplished photographer whose provocative works have been exhibited internationally and at home, and he’s released various tomes both critiquing art and displaying some of his own.
A further foray into Waters’ books reveals everything from a roundup of essays praising “the extreme figures who helped the author form his own brand of neurotic happiness” (2010’s Role Models) to a winding chronicle of Waters’ self-imposed cross-country hitchhiking expedition (2014’s Carsick). Need some self-help for the hapless? Waters has you covered there, too, with 2019’s Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder — a must-read if you’re yearning for “remarkably sound advice on how to invest in art made by monkeys.” Waters is as adept at writing books as he is at penning screenplays, and the result is that there’s a little something for everyone.
He’s Always Championed Inclusion
While it’s true he transformed Kathleen Turner into a homicidal housewife who stabs her neighbor over a ruined bird-watching excursion, Waters is a people person at heart — especially when it comes to giving marginalized groups some much-needed screentime. He was “one of the first directors to make his queer characters heroes, even in his own wicked way,” Dr. David Goldstein, a film and literature professor at the University of Washington, told Them. “[H]e gave an underrepresented voice something wild and underground to celebrate and…he unified us,” noted drag performer Peaches Christ.
And it’s not too difficult to see how. Waters’ muse and frequent leading lady, Divine, was a drag superstar who occupied the front-and-center spotlight in the director’s most famous films. Waters also often cast Elizabeth Coffey, a trans woman, in key roles. In Desperate Living (1977), he had trans wrestler-turned-gangster Mole McHenry play a notable part in “a surprising early example of a three-dimensional trans character in cinema.” These and other roles, particularly during the 1970s when many of Waters’ films were released, placed outsiders in the spotlight with a prominence no other director had attempted before.
He Still Knows How to Be a “Fancy Gentleman”
It may seem outrageous that a man whose most famous character eats dog…waste would lend his sardonically sibilant voice to a children’s show. But if Waters is famous for one thing, it’s shocking people. And voicing a character on a 2018 episode of Mickey Mouse that sees him educating Mortimer himself on social graces and proper etiquette is sort of the last place we’d expect to spot the High Priest of Filth.
The episode, appropriately titled “The Fancy Gentleman,” sees a fed-up Minnie volunteer perpetual-bachelor Mickey — complete with scraggly bathrobe and cheese-stained tighty whities — for finishing school lessons led by the snobby Wadsworth Thorndyke III. Waters plays this animated fox with his usual panache (and likely relished the scene in which Thorndyke smacks the screeching Mickey with a riding crop). But this appearance goes to show that, even while coaching the world’s most famous cartoon rodent, Waters knows how to play any part with whatever strange finesse it requires.
Plus, it’s nice to see one of his wishes come true. “I’ve always wanted to be a Disney villain,” Waters told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Are you kidding? I still dress like one.” Wadsworth Thorndyke III is no Maleficent, of course, but it’s probably best that a new generation of viewers’ introduction to Waters comes gently — and by way of a haughty cartoon canine.
He’s Endlessly Entertaining in Person
Like many great creators — think Stan Lee, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese — Waters often makes quick cameos in his films. But these appearances are a tease; they just aren’t long or satisfying enough for us to fully bask in his tawdry glory. This is one big reason it’s such a blessing Waters frequently steps out from behind the camera to embark on cross-country tours, hosting book signings and performing live shows that spread filth to the masses like butter on hot toast.
Imagine cozying up for a bedtime story only to hear lurid details about a hospital burn unit named after Michael Jackson. Waters’ live shows are rife with that sort of jarring unpredictability — one of the qualities that’s kept him so captivating after all these years. If you’re desperate to learn about everything from why you should hand out whistles at your family’s Christmas dinner to Waters’ plans for a cemetery called Disgraceland, spend some time with his live shows — particularly This Filthy World, a documentary about his most successfully sleazy live tour.
He Even Made a Mustache Iconic
Can a mustache be a moment? If you’re John Waters, absolutely. Despite the fact that it appears to be little more than a line on his upper lip carefully penciled on each morning with Maybelline eyeliner, it’s nearly impossible to envision Waters without it. It’s “his most distinctive physical feature: a mustache that conveys dignity as much as it does perversity,” muses Chris Hubert of The New York Times, and it’s occupied a prominent spot on Waters’ face since early adulthood.
But this trademark isn’t just a fashion statement or an enduring act of cosmetic graffiti; it’s actually a hirsute salute to one of Waters’ childhood idols: Little Richard. “I still have the mustache that was really a tribute to him,” Waters said in a Rolling Stone interview. “He was my hero.” One potential reason? “Little Richard scared my grandmother in 1957,” Waters told The Guardian. Considering he’s never shied away from scaring grandparents himself, there’s not a more fitting homage than channeling a fellow innovator via facial hair.