John Samuel Waters, Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American filmmaker, actor, writer, celebrity, visual artist and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films. Waters' 1970s and early '80s films feature his regular troupe of actors known as Dreamlanders — among them Divine — often committing cinematic crimes. Starting with Desperate Living (1977), Waters began casting real-life convicted criminals (Liz Renay, Patricia Hearst) as well as famous (Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, Tab Hunter) and infamous people (Traci Lords, a former underage porn star).
Waters skirted mainstream filmmaking with Hairspray (1988), which introduced Ricki Lake and earned a modest gross of $8 million domestically. In 2002, Hairspray was adapted to a long-running Broadway musical, which itself was adapted to a hit musical film which earned more than $200 million worldwide. After the crossover success of the original film version of Hairspray, Waters' films began featuring familiar actors and celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Edward Furlong, Melanie Griffith, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Kathleen Turner and Tracey Ullman.
Although he has apartments in New York City, San Francisco and a summer home in Provincetown, Waters still mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where all his films are set. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil-thin moustache.
Waters was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker) and John Samuel Waters, who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment. Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, later known as Divine, also lived in Baltimore County, Maryland, a short distance away.
The movie Lili inspired an interest in puppets in the seven-year-old Waters, who proceeded to stage violent versions of Punch and Judy for children's birthday parties. Biographer Robert L. Pela says that Waters' mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters' subsequent career (though Pela believes tacky films at a local drive-in, which the young Waters watched from a distance through binoculars, had a greater effect).
Waters attended Calvert Hall College for High School. For his sixteenth birthday, Waters received an 8mm movie camera from his maternal grandmother, Stella Whitaker.
Waters was a student at New York University (NYU) in New York City. The school, however, was not what Waters had in mind:
NYU...I was there for about five minutes. I don't know what I was thinking about. I went to one class and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn't what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see Olga's House of Shame. That was what I was more into.
Waters has credited his influences among others as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Federico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman. He has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films: "I love Bergman and I Dismember Mama".
In January 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the grounds of NYU; they were soon expelled. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he began work on his next film, Eat Your Makeup, which was filmed that year. Waters' films would become Divine's primary star vehicles. Waters' early films were all shot in the Baltimore area with his company of local actors, the Dreamlanders. In addition to Divine, the group included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Walsh, and others. These early films were among the first picked up for distribution by the fledgling New Line Cinema. Waters' films premiered at the Baltimore Senator Theatre and sometimes at the Charles Theatre.
Waters' early campy movies present filthily lovable characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogue. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, which he labeled the Trash Trilogy, pushed hard at the boundaries of conventional propriety and movie censorship. A particularly notorious scene from Pink Flamingos, simply added as a non sequitur to film's end, featured — in one continuous take without special effects — a small dog defecating and Divine eating its feces.
Waters' 2004 film, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame, is a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the 1970s. He also had a cameo in Jackass: Number Two, which starred Dirty Shame co-star Johnny Knoxville. Waters has stated that his next movie will be a children's film titled Fruitcake. It began shooting in January 2008.
Waters is currently a professor of cinema and subcultural studies at the European Graduate School. In 2007, he also became the host (as "The Groom Reaper") of 'Til Death Do Us Part, a program on America's Court TV network featuring dramatizations of real-life marriages that soured and ended in murder. As a gay American, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.
Waters has been known to create characters with alliterated names for his movies including Bo-Bo Belsinger, Corny Collins, Donald Dasher, Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, David Divine, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Mona Malnorowski, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny Pingleton, Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Rickettes, Sandy Sandstone, Sylvia Stickles, Sandra Sullivan, Todd Tomorrow, Tony The Tickler, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.
Fruitcake is Waters' next film. Production is due to begin in the fall of 2008.
Waters is an avid fan of Court TV and has attended several high-profile court cases as an observer. Waters has been quoted as saying that he saw many of the same people who were court observers at different trials all around the country. Waters eventually stopped going to trials when fans started recognizing him and went to trials to meet him. He didn't feel it was appropriate given the seriousness of the court system.
He played a minister in Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, directed by one of his idols, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Waters owns one of John Wayne Gacy's paintings, which Waters says he hangs in his guest bedroom "so people don't stay too long".
Waters has published collections of his photos including: