Cinema and Media Studies John Waters
Matt Connolly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0359


One of the most influential and idiosyncratic American independent filmmakers of the last fifty years, John Waters was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 22 April 1946. He was raised in the suburb of Lutherville, Maryland, and developed an early adolescent interest in the exploitation movies screened at local drive-ins. A rebellious high schooler, Waters formed close friendships with fellow queer adolescents and social misfits and would hitchhike to New York City where he saw influential works of 1960s-era underground filmmaking. After briefly attending New York University, where he was expelled for drug use, he returned to Baltimore and began making low-budget independent short films with local friends and collaborators—works that emphasized scandalous imagery, camp humor, and winking social transgression. Waters moved into feature filmmaking by the late 1960s, producing two films—Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970)—that started to circulate on college campuses and in countercultural screening venues outside of Baltimore. While all of Waters’s “Dreamland” acting troupe proved essential for these films’ successes, the breakout star was the corpulent and gleefully debauched drag queen Divine, whom Waters had known since adolescence. Divine, Waters, and the Dreamlanders achieved new levels of notoriety with the director’s next feature, Pink Flamingos (1972), whose jaw-dropping portrayals of taboo-busting behavior led to it being acquired by burgeoning independent distributor New Line Cinema. The film became a midnight-movie sensation and gave Waters the ability to make two more monuments to trash and social deviance: Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). In the 1980s, Waters modulated his approach to subversion, putting out his first non-X-rated feature (Polyester, 1981) and publishing two books that chronicled his life, career, and irreverent musings on contemporary society, Shock Value (1981) and Crackpot (1986). His 1988 feature Hairspray, a cheeky but largely family-friendly tale of 1960s-era teen angst and racial integration, revived his filmmaking career and became arguably his best-known work, inspiring a Broadway musical that itself led to a 2007 film adaptation. Waters continued to make films throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, though he increasingly supplemented cinematic output with his work in visual art, acting, live performance, cultural commentary, and writing (with four books published since 2010). Regardless of medium, Waters has satirized social mores, upended traditional hierarchies, and celebrated the queer, anarchic, and disreputable in ways that have permanently changed American cinema and culture.

Books and Screenplays by Waters

Waters’s published writings have a varying relationship to his film work, ranging from direct reprintings of his movie scripts to essayistic reflections that have at best loose thematic connections to his cinematic titles. Waters 1988 and Waters 2005a reproduce the screenplays of several notable Waters films (along with one unproduced work) and are accompanied with some general production notes. The filmmaker intermingles extended behind-the-scenes recollections on the making of individual films with memoir-like reflections in Waters 2005b and Waters 2019. The director’s other books focus on a combination of personal history and social commentary. Waters 2003 and Waters 2010 each offer a range of essays centering on Waters’s oft-discussed preoccupations: fame, criminality, style, taste, sexuality, and culture. Waters 2014 links these fixations with reportage on the filmmaker’s cross-country travels, while Waters 2017 reproduces a notable commencement address given by Waters that draws heavily upon his prior writings, filmmaking, and public persona.

  • Waters, John. Trash Trio: Three Screenplays. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

    The director’s first collection of published screenplays contains not only the complete scripts for Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living but also the never produced screenplay for Waters’s sequel to Pink Flamingos, Flamingos Forever. The book’s introduction by Waters reflects on the production of Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living and the difficulties in making Flamingos Forever. Republished as Pink Flamingos and Other Filth: Three Screenplays in 2005.

  • Waters, John. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York and London: Scribner, 2003.

    The second book by the filmmaker offers a variety of essays (many of them previously published) that highlight Waters’s typically irreverent reflections on fame, criminality, taste, and filmmaking. Among the most notable pieces are Waters’s reminiscences on the Baltimore-area teen dance program that eventually inspired Hairspray, his tribute to exploitation filmmaker William Castle, his interview with actress Pia Zadora, and his reflections on teaching in prisons. Originally published in 1986.

  • Waters, John. Hairspray, Female Trouble, and Multiple Maniacs: Three More Screenplays. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005a.

    The director’s second collection of published screenplays contains the complete scripts for Hairspray, Female Trouble, and Multiple Maniacs. Waters includes an introduction that reflects on each film’s production, historical context, and place within his overall career. Each screenplay is also illustrated with stills from the three films as well as behind-the-scenes images from their production.

  • Waters, John. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. Philadelphia and London: Running Press, 2005b.

    Waters’s first book combines detailed production histories of all of the director’s early films (from his first shorts through Desperate Living) with chapters on Waters’s early life and on collaborators like Divine and Edith Massey. The book also contains essays on seminal Waters topics like attending trials, the history of exploitation cinema (including interviews with Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis), and the city of Baltimore. Originally published in 1981.

  • Waters, John. Role Models. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

    This collection of essays highlights professional and personal inspirations that have shaped Waters’s life and art—from local Baltimore bar owner Esther Martin to singer Little Richard, from porn star Bobby Garcia to playwright Tennessee Williams. Of particular note is Waters’s lengthy tribute to Leslie Van Houten, a former member of the Manson family with whom he has become close friends and for whom Waters has advocated for parole.

  • Waters, John. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

    Waters’s book establishes a central premise—his plan to hitchhike from his Baltimore home to his apartment in San Francisco—and then proceeds to offer a combination of outrageous fiction and factual reportage. The first two sections imagine comical iterations of the best- and worst-case versions of his trip. Then, the final section recounts Waters’s actual, successful cross-country journey and the various people he encountered along the way.

  • Waters, John. Make Trouble. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.

    This short book reprints Waters’s popular commencement address that he delivered to the 2015 graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design. Accompanied with cheeky drawings by illustrator Eric Hanson, the text offers a series of idiosyncratic-yet-warm observations about artmaking and cultural change and extols the importance of disruptive thought within the next generation of artists.

  • Waters, John. Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

    A kind of bookend to Shock Value (1981), Waters’s non-fiction collection offers a similar mixture of career recollections and humorous reflections. The first third largely details the productions of all of the director’s feature films from Polyester to A Dirty Shame, while the remaining pages contain essays that offer characteristically cheeky-yet-thoughtful takes on an eclectic range of topics, including Andy Warhol, drugs, travel, architecture, politics, and death.

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