John Waters – otherwise known as the ‘Pope of Trash’, the ‘Prince of Puke’ and the ‘Sultan of Sleaze’ – has been a staple in the gay and alt movie world for more than half a century. Yes, that's over 50 years. In that time, he's produced transgressive films that take on cultural taboos while also providing representation for the debauched among us who long for everyone to just fucking admit they piss in the shower.
Really though, Waters is much more than a filmmaker – literally. He's also an artist, actor, author, spoken word poet and radical cult figure. Even if you're not aware of him, you've probably encountered him before. From his character on The Simpsons – zzzaaapp! – to the fact he inspired an entire acting challenge on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 7, the influence of Waters bleeds through pop culture.
But where did this pencil moustachioed man come from? Well, he first emerged in the 60s and 70s, making films in Baltimore, his hometown. His films usually starred longtime collaborator and drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Mistead), who lived on his street, and a ragtag cast of misfits also known as “Dreamlanders” (David Lochary, Susan Lowe, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivian Pearce and Channing Wilroy among others). Gradually, he built up a reputation among the queers and alt crowd, but it wasn't until Hairspray (1988), that he finally broke the mainstream.
In 2002, Hairspray inspired a broadway musical of the same name and a subsequent adaptation, also named Hairspray, released in 2007. The second Hairspray is a much tamer version of the original. In Waters’ version, we see weed smoking, fingering and a pink satin gown covered in roaches! While this might sound unhinged compared to the sparkly musical version known to many, it’s actually pretty mild mannered in comparison to the rest of Waters’ oeuvre. But, in Waters' own words: “To understand bad taste one must have very good taste.”
Over the past couple of decades, Waters has stepped away from making movies, instead focussing on books, acting and live performances. Until recently, that is. Earlier this month it was revealed that Waters would be returning to the director's chair for Liarmouth, a filmic adaptation of his 2022 novel of the same name.
And so, to celebrate his return to film, here's everything you need to know if you want to get into John Waters but don’t know where to start.
So you want to get into… 60s and 70s transgressive John Waters
You've probably seen the iconic image of Divine in a red dress and blond beehive, aiming a pistol straight forward at least once. That famous shot is from the film Pink Flamingos (1972), arguably the most famous John Waters film from his early era.
Aside from the astoundingly memorable visuals, Pink Flamingos goes down in cinematic and cultural history for being the movie where Divine eats literal dog shit on screen. Not a prop shit. Not a melted choccy bar masquerading as a shit. But actual shite out of a dog’s arse. You’ll be pleased to know that, at the very least, the crew fed this dog nothing but steak for three days before shooting the scene.
But Pink Flamingos didn’t come out of nowhere. Before then, Waters released a bunch of wild short films in the 1960s. It's also the second film in his so-called ‘Trash Trilogy’, alongside Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Female Trouble (1974), closely followed by Desperate Living (1977). Each of these movies features a motley crew of outcasts with something to prove – usually that they’re the filthiest, the most perverted or the most beautiful person alive.
Being outrageous and shocking people was Waters’ aim and in these early years, he executed it perfectly. Digesting animal turds isn’t even the half of it. Highlights include scenes in Multiple Maniacs where Divine has lesbian sex in a church and gets shagged by a giant lobster named “Lobstora”. Female Trouble matches the mayhem with acid attacks, numerous murders and a rallying cry of “Who wants to die for art?!”
Must watch: Multiple Maniacs (1970) / Pink Flamingos (1972) / Female Trouble (1974)
Bonus round: Mondo Trasho (1969) / Desperate Living (1977)
So you want to get into… mainstream 80s John Waters
As Waters' fame rises, so too does the cast that he enlists – by the 80s, notable names like Ricki Lake, Sonny Bono, Johnny Depp, Traci Lords and Iggy Pop appear in fully fledged, fully silly roles alongside the Dreamlanders. It's during this decade that his films develop into having more relatable storylines involving family dynamics and bratty teenagers with Waters providing moral lessons in a more palatable manner. The race dynamics of Hairspray are an obvious one, but the distraught plight of the American housewife in Polyester (1981) and the classism in Cry-Baby (1990) are still recognisable storylines for mainstream viewers to understand.
In Polyester, Divine moves into a mother role, getting hysterical over her husband Elmer’s affair and the anti-pornography protests staged outside of her house due to Elmer’s adult movie theatre causing controversy. Although laced with lewdness, Polyester also kind of speaks to any maternal figure who has ever felt ignored or lonely. Side note: this film is especially special for how heavily the actress Edith Massey features, appearing as a nouveau riche legend and Divine’s best friend helping her through the carnage.
And then, of course, there's Cry-Baby (1990). While it unfortunately stars Johnny Depp, it also includes the sheer sexiness of ex-porn actress Traci Lords. The fact that Lords was being tracked down by the FBI while on set only adds to the notorious outrageousness we expect from Waters. This film drips with production value, from elaborate sets that are a marked difference to the usual backdrop of whichever Baltimore street Waters can point a camera at, to elaborate dance numbers, it’s clear here that whoever funds films realised Waters’ audience was growing.
Finally, to truly understand this era, Hairspray (1988) is an absolute must – even if it’s only to check out how vastly it differs from the later musical. It’s the first of Waters’ movies to be rated a PG and is definitely the easiest to follow, but it’s also completely wild. Plus, it stars Ricki Lake, Divine and Debbie Harry! What's not to love?
Must Watch: Polyester (1981) / Hairspray (1988) / Cry-Baby (1990)
So you want to get into… 90s and 00s, post-‘Crybaby’ John Waters
The 90s and 00s sees a new wave of Waters films, released less often but still reaching transgressive heights, for example putting Selma Blair in a pair of the biggest synthetic tits known to man in A Dirty Shame (2004). The film, which features Blair alongside Mink Stole, Johnny Knoxville and Tracey Ullman as sex fetishists looking for the “ultimate sex act”, is the last of Waters’ films to date. It's a wild ride, although it was also a box office flop, which apparently put Waters off releasing movies indefinitely.
Before then though, we had Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998), which both follow the Hairspray route of more accessible, less grotesque storytelling (and when I say “less grotesque” I mean “less grotesque for Waters”. Especially considering the fact Serial Mom stars Kathleen Turner as a murderous, unhinged suburban mother addicted to killing.) Pecker, meanwhile, follows a Baltimore photographer who gets mercilessly pounced upon by elitist New York art yuppies.
At the turn of the century, Waters then releases Cecil B. Demented (2000), a film starring Melanie Griffith as a snobby A-list Hollywood actress who gets kidnapped by a group of terrorist filmmakers who force her to star in their underground movie.
It's clear that Waters absolutely relishes mocking the highest in society – aiming upwards rather than down – which is why so many of his films are so beloved. These final offerings are perfectly in keeping with that classic Waters energy.
Must watch: Serial Mom (1994) / Pecker (1998) / A Dirty Shame (2004)
Bonus round: Cecil B. Demented (2000)
So you want to get into… artist John Waters
Not only are we all disgustingly lucky to be alive at the same time as John Waters, who just turned 76, but we’re lucky enough that he's still keen on being around us. Most diehard fans have had the opportunity to meet Waters or sit at one of his talks as he nimbly makes his way across the stage delivering outrageous anecdotes and cutting remarks. The kind that would make you wince if literally anyone said them.
As well as live performance, Waters’ artistic output takes on other forms, including collagist and fine artist (he once created a giant sculpture of some spilled poppers). The provocation of art prints stating ‘Gay is not enough’ and ‘SHUT UP AND BLOW ME’ are a natural follow up to Waters’ patented shock method and hit extremes with pieces like Playdate – a sculpture of Charles Manson and Michael Jackson as baby dolls.
Garish and witty, but always with a specific viewpoint, Waters’ artistic contributions are as you'd expect. They’re a must for anyone wanting to dive deep into this cult figure’s work.
Bonus! So you want to get into… literary John Waters
John Waters’ visions on the page are just as vivid and unthinkable as those he commits to the screen. And he’s actually released quite a few books over the years, from Shock Value (1981) to Role Models (2010), to Carsick (2014) and Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder (2019) among others.
Most of his books are memoir-adjacent, with the exception of Liarmouth (2022), which we’ll get to later. Role Models, for example, profiles all of the important people from Waters’ life including celebrities but more notably looking at the bar owners and Dreamlanders that shaped the cult icon into the person he is today. The book, just like his speeches, has a myriad of jokes alongside profound life lessons. From “true success is figuring out your life and career so you never have to be around jerks” to “have faith in your own bad taste”, Role Models is a manifesto in self belief.
In 2012, Waters followed up Role Models with another character study, Carsick. After hitchhiking across America - from Baltimore to San Francisco - Waters wrote about his adventures and the people he met, including a republican council leader and the band Here We Go Magic. This feat is all the more admirable when you consider Waters was in his mid 60s when he accomplished the trip entirely through hitchhiking. Can you imagine John Waters sticking his thumb out to hop in your van?
And then of course there’s Liarmouth - his first fictional novel - which came out earlier this year. It’s about a sociopath who literally cannot stop lying, but also features: a talking cock, a trampolining group and a woman fingering her cat with a cotton bud. It’s pretty shocking in ways that surely can’t be put into film but, thankfully, Waters is going to try. With that in mind, I’ll hopefully be updating this list in the near future with Waters’ next era in film.
Must reads: Role Models / Carsick / Liarmouth
Bonus round: Crackpot / Mr Know-It-All