NORMAL, Ill. – The gentleman in his late 30s reaches the area where John Waters is signing autographs. He places three of Waters’ books on a table and boasts that he must be the only person who has watched the eccentric filmmaker’s movies while attached to a kidney dialysis machine.
This detail impresses Waters, whose 23-year career as a director includes seven largely disturbing comedies – his 1972 cult hit “Pink Flamingos” ended with a character tasting dog excrement – and two fine, mainstream films, “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby.”
Waters muses about what inscription to give this devoted fan.
“See you in hell,” he writes, “John Waters.”
Looking dapper in an expensive suit, his trademark mustache hanging on his upper lip like a piece of string, Waters bounds on stage at an Illinois State University ballroom recently. During the next 75 minutes, he delivers a seemingly off-the-cuff speech, outrageous and unpredictable, which resembles his film style.
He keeps the audience of 200 enthralled. It’s a crowd that applauds enthusiastically at mentions of certain Waters films – like 1981’s “Polyester,” which starred a Waters cast regular, the late transvestite Divine, and featured “odorama” (scratch-and-sniff cards with foul smells handed to moviegoers). “All my life, every producer said I’ll never play in Peoria,” Waters says, “So here I am, not only near Peoria, but in Normal, which would sound even better to them.”
Actually, the musical comedies, “Hairspray” and last year’s “Cry-Baby,” with Johnny Depp, played in theaters nationwide. “Hairspray” satirized teen dance shows of the early ’60s, and “Cry-Baby” spoofed ’50s juvenile delinquents.
Both films received PG-13 ratings. “`Hairspray’ would be the perfect movie to show on airline flights,” he says. “There’s music and dancing, no sex or violence. They said they couldn’t show it because Divine, who played a loving mother, is in it. I know if John Candy had played the role, they would have shown it.”
Entertained by the charming “Hairspray,” a conservative Florida family made the mistake of renting “Pink Flamingos,” expecting a similar viewing experience, Waters says. The family became so repulsed by the movie — which Waters describes as “a battle between the filthiest people alive” — that they formed a group to protest the film’s appearance on video store shelves.
With “Pink Flamingos,” Waters insists, “I never tried to offend anyone. I just wanted to make them laugh.”
Later, he jokes about the ragged features of his first three black-and-white films, including 1969’s “Mondo Trasho,” which shows Divine being raped by a 15-foot lobster.
“People see those early films and they say, `Oh, you must have all been on LSD when you made those movies,’ ” Waters says. “Well . . . we were.
“But I don’t take drugs now because it’s so retro. In the ’60s, smart kids took drugs to think more and now it seems like dumb kids take drugs to not think at all.”
Waters maintains a fascination with true, macabre crime stories. Attending sordid court cases, it appears, is one of his hobbies.
“I was part of a press group that interviewed somebody two days before he got the electric chair. I’m against capital punishment, but nobody’s going to miss this guy, believe me,” Waters says.
“They asked him what is his last request, and I swear he said this: He wanted Ricky Schroeder to sit nude on his lap in the electric chair.”
Waters calls Patty Hearst, who appeared in “Cry-Baby” as the mother of former porn star Traci Lords, “my favorite celebrity in the world.” “(Hearst) said, `John, I have something you might be interested in. Do you want the glasses I wore when I was arrested in a picture that ran on the cover of Newsweek?’ I said, `Ooooh, yes.’ I’ve put the glasses and the magazine cover in a glass case.
“Later she said, `Anyone else who would do that (with the glasses), I’d be afraid of.’ ” For a man who says “Life is nothing unless you’re obsessed,” Waters’ two “dream” projects are suitably bizarre. He’d like to: Direct a movie about a nudist camp with “people you never want to see nude, like Ed McMahon or Liv Ullmann” and star in a biographical film about Don Knotts.
Instead, Waters, 46, is writing a script called “Glamour Puss,” which Paramount Pictures has contracted him to finished by June 15. “It’s about a female movie star who goes on location in Baltimore and falls in love with a truck driver,” he says. “It’ll be rated R, and it’s not a musical. Saying anything more than that is bad luck.”
So he wouldn’t mention who he’d like to have star in “Glamour Puss,” but he speaks glowingly about Rikki Lake, an actress who received her first major role in “Hairspray.”
And it’s likely Waters will pepper “Glamour Puss” with performers in brief roles who seem mismatched – which he did in his last two films. “Cry-Baby” featured Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrrell, Polly Bergen and Troy Donahue, and “Hairspray” had Debbie Harry, Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek.
Celebrity amuses Waters, who has carved his own odd niche in pop culture. After his ISU speech, fans asked him to sign everything from a plastic pink flamingo to an “odorama” scratch-and-sniff card from “Polyester.”
The wealthy Pia Zadora threw a lavish party for Waters at her Beverly Hills house to celebrate the opening of “Cry-Baby.” “And Telly Savalas is going around, asking, `Who’s John Waters? Who’s John Waters?’ ” Waters laughs. “That really summed up about everything I love about Hollywood.”