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The Self-Made Man: John Waters

John Waters is something of a constant in my life. Being from Baltimore, and having family in the area who knew his family (my grandmother used to play bridge with his aunt), I’ve always known about him and his seedy reputation in film, even before I was old enough to see it for myself.

Granted, John is best known for films like Hairspray and Crybaby since they’re both Broadway musicals now, but his earlier, trashier films – Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, etc. – chronicled the eccentricities of white, working class Baltimore while they skewered that same demographic’s conception of decency. John is the photographic negative of Barry Levinson, another Baltimore-bred director, in this regard. But John is also a Self Made Man.

The great John Waters

Any biography of John’s will tell you that he was the gay black sheep of his upper-middle class family, and that his movies, which he writes and directs, are a direct result of his myriad strange interests; then-underground gay culture, B-movies, sexual perversion, and the mixture of high and low art that guys like Warhol were doing when John was growing up. They might also mention that John went to NYU just long enough to get kicked out for smoking pot on campus, which just proves how much the times have changed. Hard to imagine that happening today.

But what they won’t get into is how much work it took to build up his now-successful image of a public weirdo. John and his friends spent a lot of time making movies, but they spent almost more time networking and promoting their films. They would hitchhike or jump trains to cities that had been troubled by rioting and hand out flyers in the aftermath. They made friends in editing rooms who would cut and master their films for cheap, and got Baltimore theaters like the Senator and the Charles to show their work. All of this was a risk, too – 1970s America was not ready for John Waters’ films. Hell, 2011 America isn’t ready. People my age still get queasy during the Singing Anus scene in Pink Flamingos.

John also, although he may not have seen this as a major risk, embarrassed his family for years until he finally made it. However rich he may have been growing up, that money didn’t really factor into his early career. He had to go out there and hustle and be ready for constant resistance (arrests, personal threats, destruction of his film prints) to what he was doing.

Truth is, John liked the work. He still does. He didn’t shy away from a grueling schedule because he believed in what he was doing, and had a peculiar sort of drive that TSB recognizes as common among all Self Made Men. To John, the work of promoting his art form became an extension of that art form, and he helped set the table for a lot of independent/DIY filmmakers who came after him.

Keeping that in mind, try to forgive him for A Dirty Shame. We all make mistakes.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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