Cult movie director John Waters has some very strange role models. Lorne Jackson finds out who and why.
Most of us have a hero.
Some admire freedom fighters, like Martin Luther King or Gandhi.
Sport fans are easiest to please. They can’t get enough of footy stars, and their ball-booting prowess. (Not to mention their God-given talent for stifling gobby girlfriends with super injunctions.)
John Waters has heroes, too. Though they’re not your standard icons of song, screen, sport or politics.
The cult movie director has a yen for murderers and porn stars.
Now he’s written a book, Role Models, celebrating the dubious characters he admires so much.
He’ll be discussing the book at this year’s Hay Festival, in Hay-on-Wye, where he’s destined to be one of the most controversial guests.
Such notoriety won’t concern him too much. He’s never shied away from shocking an audience, embracing his inner outrageousness like a hippy hugging a tree.
His persona is camp, bordering on crack-up.
The voice is arch as a Vulcan’s eyebrow. Then there’s the skinny body, and skinnier moustache, giving him the appearance of a World War II spiv. Or the Addams Family’s second cousin, twice removed.
His oeuvre is equally outre.
This is the gent who has written and directed some of the most disturbing (yet intentionally silly and hilarious) movies ever to go SPLAT! on a cinema screen.
The titles alone supply decent clues about content. Hag In A Black Leather Jacket. Mondo Trasho. Multiple Maniacs...
Then came Pink Flamingos.
His 1972 masterpiece of muck didn’t just take the biscuit – it consumed an entire tin of Family Circle.
Pink Flamingos starred Waters' drag queen chum, Divine, as Babs Johnson, the “filthiest person alive”.
Babs is exceedingly proud of the title, and will do anything to prove how majestically yucky she can be. That includes eating dog dirt. (Sincere apologies if you’re reading your Post while chomping a chocolate muffin. Stick to warm milk until the end of this article. Best for a strong stomach.)
No stunt double was used in the making of Pink Flamingos. Divine genuinely dined on the dreaded delicacy. Not surprisingly, the film can’t be shown in the UK in its uncut form, though it’s a cult favourite on America’s midnight movie circuit.
Luckily I get to talk to the unedited version of John Waters, who tells me how proud he is of his book.
“For years I’ve been yakking away to my friends about my role models,” he says. “They know all my opinions off by heart. So I was looking for someone new to tell the stories to.
“That’s why I decided to write the book.”
He adds: “Everybody can write a version of this book, because we all have role models who have inspired us to do something with our lives.
“And it’s wrong to think that those role models have to be holy and perfect. Mine certainly aren’t!”
Oh boy, is that an understatement.
Waters prefers Jayne Mansfield to Marilyn Monroe. (Fair enough.) The Three Stooges to Charlie Chaplin. (Controversial, though I understand his point.) Alvin and the Chipmunks to The Beatles. (Say what?!)
Then we come to the really questionable choices. Bobby Garcia the gay porn star. Waters is gay himself, and admires Bobby’s, erm, enthusiasm for meeting and befriending Marines.
What he admires about Leslie Van Houten is harder to comprehend.
Van Houten was a member of the Manson Family, the gang of killers led by Charles Manson in the late 60s.
I expect Waters to be gleefully flippant regarding Van Houten. It’s his default position on most matters.
Not about this.
“When I write about Leslie I have to be serious,” he says. “There isn’t much humour in this part of the book. I know Leslie did a terrible thing, and that’s something she has to live with every day of her life. I suppose she’s a role model for me because she has accepted what she’s done, and struggles each day to be a better person.
“Leslie will never forgive herself for what she did. And she doesn’t hate anymore. She doesn’t even hate Charles Manson, who she just thinks is a pathetic old man.”
If Waters talks as though he knows Van Houten well, it’s because he does.
His relationship with the Manson Family is an odd one to say the least.
In the early 70s, when he was a struggling Baltimore-based film maker, he obsessed over the case.
Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos were both heavily influenced by the killing spree.
When the Manson clan were captured, Waters travelled to LA to attend the court hearings, visiting some of the criminals in their cells.
Years later a rock magazine asked him to interview the incarcerated Charles Manson. He said he was more interested in talking to Van Houten, also jailed for life. They made contact and have remained firm friends for over two decades.
He wants her released, of course.
“Her crime was a long, long time ago. She’s not that person anymore. You could ask her to baby sit your kids, now, and you wouldn’t have to be nervous while you were at the movies.
“Sometimes I even worry that I make her look bad, when I’m pleading her case, because of my notoriety. I’ve told her I’m willing to back off, but she wants me on her side.”
In the early 90s, Waters directed Johnny Depp in the movie Cry-Baby. He persuaded Depp of the positive change in Van Houten.
“Because he was my buddy, Johnny offered to visit Leslie.
“Leslie was so moved that he would do that for her. But it never happened because Johnny’s visiting form was turned down. It’s probably lucky, really. Imagine the press that Johnny would have got. ‘Depp joins Manson cult!’ Not a great career move.”
He adds: “I hope Leslie will eventually get her freedom, but it’s so hard. Most people don’t see her as a person. They just see her as a Halloween costume. I think you had the same thing over in the UK, with Myra Hindley.”
Leslie Van Houten is trapped forever in her moment of madness, though Waters has left his own brand of cinematic insanity far behind.
He has long been a fixture of the mainstream. In 2002 his movie, Hairspray, was adapted into a hugely popular musical.
Versions of the stage show still tour (it played Birmingham Hippodrome last year) while the movie version starred John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Does he miss his outsider status?
“I’m extremely thrilled by the success of the Hairspray musical,” he says. “The royalties bought me an apartment in San Francisco, so I can’t complain.
"Besides, I’m not interested in being an outsider anymore. Everybody wants to be an outsider, which means it’s the squarest thing you can possibly be. Now, I’m more interested in being the ultimate Hollywood insider. The irony is quite delicious.”
These days the great appaller can even find things that appal him.
“Reality TV is just hideous,” he groans. “They don’t know when to stop.”
Does this mean he’s genuinely bored of his bad old ways? Not quite.
He admits that five years ago he got a friend to smuggle an Osama bin Laden doll into America, which he now keeps in a closet.
“It’s like one of those Russian dolls, only with a Bin Laden inside a Bin Laden inside a Bin Laden.”
Then there’s the question of that last vestige of tackiness that Waters isn’t quite willing to dispense with... yet.
“I’ve always said that getting rid of my moustache will be my final flourish on this earth,” he says. “I’ll shave it off, then eat it along with my last sliver of sanity. A final act of madness for the kids.”
* Role Models is published by Beautiful Books (£15.99). He’ll be discussing the book at Hay on Saturday, at 8.30pm. For more information about this, and other Hay Festival events: www.hayfestival.com
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The Hay Festival 2011
The Hay Festival 2011, which runs from May 25 until June 5, provides its usual blend of pontificators, populists, punchy prose merchants and Presidents. That’s right the Prez of the US of A is popping round to do a bit of preaching.
Though it’s not Obama. (‘Yes we can’, has turned to ‘No we can’t’ for this year’s Festival. Though don’t discount a future visit by this most literary of Presidents.)
The White House wallah at Hay is Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer, passionate jogger and peace activist. He’ll be discussing the peace activism. (Peanuts and jogging are left for another day.)
Other major artists, intellectuals and media personalities arriving include Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Rob Lowe, Nigella Lawson, Chris Evans, Niall Ferguson, Germaine Greer and Monty Don.
It’s eclectic, it’s electric, and yes, there will also be books. Lots and lots of books...
And authors, too, of course.
Philip Pullman and VS Naipaul are amongst the top scribblers visiting.
And for those who lack a literary bent, Hay also provides a music and comedy festival
It’s always bustling at Hay during the Festival, though excellent and affordable accommodation can be found in nearby Worcester at the Premier Inn.
Just three miles from Worcester centre, at the entrance to Warndon business park, the Premier Inn is within easy reach of the M5, and has an onsite Beefeater restaurant. For more information, visit: www.premierinn.com or tel: 0871 527 9188.
HowTheLightGetsIn is an additional festival at Hay, mixing philosophy and music. The line up includes philosophers, writers, politicians, scientists, musicians and other performers.
“Our events are the backdrop to creating a space where real conversation and genuine human interaction can take place. Though it’s not all going to be cerebral,” a spokesman said.
“There will be music and bands and parties into the night, along with documentary screenings, comedy and free acoustic events.”