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Still Waters

With a new Broadway adaptation of Cry-Baby, John Waters is a member in good standing of the American mainstream. But he’s still got the same warped obsessions he had as a teen.

'What adult comes to the beach every summer?” John Waters asked, standing by the side of the road with his sunglasses on and his thumb in the air one Wednesday in August. “Isn’t that something you’re supposed to do when you’re 16? What adult can do that?” Waters wore red jeans over swim trunks, with pointy-toed Comme des Garçons slip-ons and a green shirt, and had his towel over his shoulder and, of course, his distinguishing skinny mustache above his lip, as it has been since Waters was 19 years old. He was hitchhiking from Longnook beach to his seafront summer rental on Commercial Street in Provincetown. “Hitchhiking,” he declared, “is my midlife crisis—I didn’t buy a sports car.” He drives a Buick LeSabre, which on that day was parked on Commercial Street with a valid beach sticker on the windshield. The hitching was just for kicks.

Waters is as infatuated with the romance of the juvenile delinquent now as he was as a sheltered suburban teenager growing up outside of Baltimore, yearning for trouble. Since his very first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Waters’s work has been marked by his obsession with badness—bad taste, bad behavior, bad girls with bad hair. His aesthetic has always been trashy, his imagination filthy. None of that will ever go away, even if John Waters is too celebrated now to have anything left to rebel against.

“If people don’t stop, we curse at ’em,” he instructed as some lesbians in a hatchback sped by. “Assholes,” Waters said. “Recently I picked up this hitchhiker in Baltimore and this kid started huffing glue! I said, ‘In the daytime?’ He said, ‘You want some?’ I’m like 61! What am I gonna do? Start huffing glue in Baltimore, in the middle of the day? Actually, I almost did. I thought, well, that’ll be interesting. I gave him a ride the whole way.”

Also recently, Waters accidentally smoked crack. He was having a party at his house in Baltimore and someone passed him a pipe that he assumed was packed with pot, so he took a puff. “I thought, Am I addicted? Am I gonna rob my parents now? I had a horrible hangover, but I’d been drinking anyway. I was glad, actually, in a way. I would never now purposely try a new drug, I don’t think, but I’m secretly glad I know what it feels like. All I remember is it freezes your lungs. I did meth when I was young, but it was methedrine, which became like a terrible biker drug, like the lowest-class redneck drug, and how it ever became a gay drug is still a mystery to me, because it was so déclassé.” All of his friends—the Dreamlanders, they called themselves—did drugs, and some outgrew them, and others became addicted and died, and it was pretty surprising who went which way. “There was no rhyme or reason. It’s like some people, if they try heroin, it’s like this is what they’ve been looking for their whole lives—especially if you’re a jazz musician. Jazz is the sound of heroin. My mother was on pills this year because she was sick; she was on morphine for the first time. I said, ‘Let’s play Coltrane! Finally you’ll understand it.’ ”

Waters does exhibit some of the symptoms of adulthood. He’s quit smoking, for example … or, as he put it in his book Shock Value, “I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore.” He is a homeowner, thrice over. He has the kind of success that only a grown-up can have: He has made sixteen films and will start shooting another one, Fruitcake, in the coming months; his most popular film, Hairspray, was made into a Broadway musical that won eight Tonys and is now extremely successful in London too, and a film remake starring John Travolta came out last year. Waters’s 1990 film Cry-Baby has just been made into a musical that is currently in previews and will open on Broadway next month. He has an amazing collection of contemporary art. He employs a decorator. He drinks tea.

But his interests have remained intact: art, sex, drugs, class, and transgression. His most recent film, A Dirty Shame, received an NC-17 rating. A Dirty Shame is less shocking than Pink Flamingos, the 1972 movie that made Waters famous and featured a man with a singing asshole and the drag queen Divine (who grew up around the corner from Waters) literally eating dog shit. But then most movies are. A Dirty Shame is still both filthy and insanely creative: Its characters find themselves changed from genteel “neuters” to insatiable sex addicts of various stripes after they bump their heads. The final transformation occurs when Chris Isaak’s character is hit on the head by the petrified turd of David Hasselhoff, whom we see defecating in the bathroom of an airplane flying high overhead.