John Waters on the Terrible, Trashy Films That Changed His Life
We talked to the godfather of trash about Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, and the worst movies known to man.
This September, a major retrospective of cult filmmaker John Waters's work will be shown for the first time at the BFI London. Alongside his own films—like Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom—the institute will show a program of Waters' favorite British films. As any Waters fan would expect, the program consists of some of the biggest garbage to ever be shat out of the UK film industry.
One such piece of garbage is the little-seen and poorly acted Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton film, Boom! Based on Tennessee William's play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, it tells the story of Frances "Sissy" Goforth, a terminally ill woman living on a remote island which is invaded by a mysterious poet, Christopher Flanders, a.k.a. "The Angel of Death." Waters has previously described it as "Beyond bad." He said: "It's the other side of camp. It's beautiful, atrocious and it's perfect."
Waters' second selection features another of Britain's most famous leading ladies, Joan Crawford. Trog is a 70s sci-fi horror film about what happens when a living troglodyte is discovered in a cave in the British countryside. Crawford plays the scientist who attempts to domesticate the beast, which goes quite well until it escapes and mauls everyone.
In honor of all this, we called up John Waters at his home in Baltimore to talk about the star quality of Crawford, the eternal appeal of Taylor, and the influence they had on his own leading lady, Divine. The three are, together, a kind of holy trinity of camp icons. Waters also explained what it is he loves about the movies Trog and Boom!, and how they impacted his accomplishments on screen.
Let's start with Trog. Trog is a movie you watch with your mouth hanging open. Trog is a howler. But it wasn't made it to be funny. It's Joan Crawford's last film and it's totally heartbreaking to see her doing serious acting with a man in a monkey suit pretending to be a troglodyte. It's so sad because she just wanted to work. And you hear all these rumors, like she had to change her clothes in the car on set (which has been angrily denied by the director who says he spent a fortune on her). The thing is, this is a studio movie. It wasn't even cheap! And yet she had dialogue like, "Trog! Here Trog!" So you kind of feel sorry for her and then you don't because she was Joan Crawford.
I would like to have met her. Im still a fan of hers and I hate that daughter. Have you seen Mommy Dearest? The film about Crawford's adopted daughters? It's a really great movie. If you cut out that coat hanger scene it would have got an Oscar. I just hate that the daughter wrote Mommy Dearest. Later, when she ran out of money, she was on stage with drag queens in San Francisco taking it out of her mother... and I think, Oh please, if you were so injured by her you sure are milking it for 25 years!
Anyway, does Trog influence me? Yes! It taught me: Get a star and build a vehicle around her. That's how to get your movie made. I always got along with stars, I never had any trouble. When you have a meeting with a star you do have to think, Right, have they got a sense of humor? I'm willing to bet Joan Crawford did not. Not even in Trog! Just that word is funny! "Trog!" It's enough to make you laugh. But not her. Or the director. Freddie Francis who directed it refused to speak of it later in his career. And some people say it's the worst film ever made. Of course, it's not. The worst films ever made aren't funny, they're just tedious. That's the tyranny of good taste.
Now, Boom! got even worse reviews than Trog! Except from Tenessee Williams, whose book it was based on. He said it was the best film ever made. Which to this day only he and I can agree on. He's right though. The play was called The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, but that was too long to put on the marquee so they called the film Boom!, which is the sound of a bomb going off—ironic, considering how hard it bombed.
It's so awful it's perfect. My favorite bit is when Elizabeth Taylor pukes into a handkerchief, looks down and there's blood, and she says, "Ah! A paper rose!" The script is ridiculous. Come on, it's about the richest woman in the world, called "Sissy Goforth," and the Angel of Death. Maybe everyone does need an angel of death who comes to them when they die and so what if your angel of death steals something from you.
The point is, it's a staggering movie and it's worth seeing it with a live audience because you just don't know how to react at the beginning. You think, What is the tone of this? That's the thing that is so bizarre. Apparently Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were drunk for the whole time they were filming it. Elizabeth Taylor kept wanting to buy the set and it had a roof and they had to tell her it wasn't real. She wanted to live there and they had to say, "We're making a movie! This isn't a real house!"
I remember I met Elizabeth Taylor and the first thing I said is, "I loved Boom!" and she got real mad and shouted, "That's a terrible movie!" And I said "It isn't! I love that movie! I tour with it at festivals!" Then she realized I was serious. Because it is a great movie. I feel like if you don't agree with that I hate you. If you don't like Boom! I could never be your friend. Right now I live by the water and every time I see a wave hit a rock I shout, "Boom!" like Richard Burton.
If you haven't seen it, it is similar to that other Richard Burton and Liz Taylor movie, Suddenly Last Summer—only that was a well-reviewed, Oscar-nominated movie. Boom! closed in a week. I think the director, Joseph Losey, was the first person ever to lose money on Liz and Richard Burton. Apparently they asked Katharine Hepburn to play the part of Sissy Goforth and she turned it down because, quote, "It's insulting to have been asked." Liz Taylor makes it though, her tone of voice is so squeaky in it. At one point she pushes her X-ray machine off the cliff while screaming, "Baby buggy from hell!" What a line.
Divine and I saw this movie together in Baltimore—Baltimore played all the movies they wouldn't show anywhere else. I probably saw it on acid with Divine. I used to take Divine to see Ingmar Bergman movies on acid and he would freak out and hate them. He'd say, "Take me to see movies about rich people please." So we went to see Boom! I think we were at least on pot when we watched it.
This movie, no one can imagine but, it was a huge influence on Pink Flamingos. I saw it right before making that and, in the movie, Goforth is writing her memoirs, and in Pink Flamingos Divine is writing her memoirs in the trailer. No one would notice that, though. I'm such a big Liz Taylor fan and so was Divine. At the end of Boom!, Liz Taylor looked like Divine. And Divine always looked like Elizabeth Taylor at the beginning of her career.
How will Trog and Boom! go down now? With people who like me and my films? At a John Waters retrospective? I think it will go down just fine! It depends what state you come in, though. I think people who like my films like highbrow movies and lowbrow movies and it's mid-brow movies that they have trouble with. I show lots of films at festivals and really I pick the films so I can see them. I like to put the spotlight on the movies that everybody wants to forget, but I just won't let them. Trog and Boom! are two of those movies.
As told to @MillyAbraham
It Isn't Very Pretty... The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them...) runs at BFI Southbank from the September 1 to October 6.
The season includes six British films personally selected by John Waters for a dedicated sidebar: Teabaggin' in the Kitchen Sink: My Favourite British Films
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