John Waters was born on this day in 1946. He is one of my favorite people on the planet & one of my best reading experiences of the last year was making my way through his book- Role Models, a collection of essays about his idols, some living, some dead, most dating back to his teenage years. Under the New Austerity Program, I borrowed this book from the library after making a pledge to check out books from my local branch rather than purchasing them in hardback. I loved Role Models so much, I bought it anyway, even though I had already studied every page, before returning the library edition.
Waters & I share a passion for Tennessee Williams that started early in life. The nuns in Catholic school told Waters that if he saw a movie written by Tennessee Williams he would go “straight to hell”, so naturally he headed for the library to find a “joyous, alarming, sexually confusing” writer who “saved my life”.
We both have a thing for Johnny Mathis. In the Mathis essay, Waters remembers seeing a basement full of his friends French kissing to Johnny Mathis, Waters explains: “I knew then that not only did I want to be a teenager… I wanted to be an exaggeration of a teenager.” Note that Waters wanted to be a teen, as if being a teenager were not simply a matter of putting in the time, but a lifestyle or a choice. You could actually fail at teenagerdom.
One of my favorites of the essays is about Mexican porn director Bobby Garcia, “who has blown hundreds & hundreds of really cute marines & lived to tell about it”, & whose favorite film turns out to be The Hours. Garcia: “I saw it at least 20, 25 times.”
Waters writing is stealthy & surprising, full of devotion & delight. I often feel that writing for the screen is the ultimate place that all writers dream of escaping, but here we have the opposite: a filmmaker who writes a book that feels like liberation, a place where he can be the fan he wants to be.
Maxims from John Waters:
“Be interested in other people's behavior & try to figure out why they did it. That's what's so interesting to me, & it's not quite so obvious, & everybody has horror stories, everybody has secrets, everybody has things they've done that they're still trying to explain why they did. So if you can understand why other people did it, then maybe you'll be better with yourself & you can be a happy neurotic, which is what I'm trying to be.”
On our mutual love of Johnny Mathis: “I remember when I was 11, I went to a party across the street, & they were playing Johnny Mathis music, & all the older kids were making out to it. He makes everybody in the world want to make out, even 80-year-olds, & that's kind of hilarious to me. He doesn't participate in the fame game, & he's still incredibly famous. Do you ever see him at a premiere? Or on a talk show? I went to his Christmas show, & it was completely sold out. & there was no interview with Johnny Mathis in the local paper.
“I asked Mathis, ‘Don't you get sick of singing the same songs? He said, "No, you pretend you're the audience every night, & you haven't heard it." So I respect him, & I still like to hear him sing.
On being a “gay artist”: “I write about it in a refined way. I'm trying to give it grace — a word I would never normally say. I also hate the word "journey." & "craft" & "rigorous." & "openly gay," which always makes me laugh. Do they say, “Openly heterosexual So-and-So is appearing tonight’? & that phrase "practicing homosexual." Like, if he keeps practicing, he'll get it right... First of all, I never call myself an artist. History decides if you're an artist. I certainly think I'm equally right for gay & straight people."
On same sex marriage: “I don't have a gay agenda, although I vote gay. If someone said they were against gay marriage, I wouldn't vote for them. But I have no desire to mimic something Larry King does 8 times, & I like Larry King. Good for him! He's helping us. I hope he gets married 10 more times. Just don't make me do what you want to do.”
My Favorite John Waters film is the rather sweet- Pecker. Do you like his collection of films? Do you have a favorite?