John Waters: The Hollywood Star and Museum Honoree


John Waters, the iconic filmmaker and author known for his irreverent and unconventional works, recently received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This recognition coincided with the opening of the “John Waters: Pope of Trash” exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. This retrospective, the largest of its kind, celebrates Waters’ six-decade career spanning film, television, literature, and art.

A Lifetime of Storytelling

Waters’ journey as a storyteller began in his early years in Lutherville, Maryland. Even as a child, he orchestrated puppet shows and horror houses for neighborhood kids. His 16th birthday gift from his grandmother, an 8mm movie camera, kick-started his fascination with filmmaking. Although he briefly attended NYU, his love for marijuana led to his expulsion. 

He returned to Baltimore, where he still resides, and gathered a group of like-minded friends who became his collaborators. The ensemble included Glenn Milstead, known as Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, and Mary Vivian Pearce.

The Cult of Trash Cinema

In the 1970s, Waters wrote, produced, and directed films like “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living,” and “Pink Flamingos.” These cult classics became part of the “trash trilogy” that catapulted him to near-mythical status. His nicknames paint a colorful picture: Filth Elder, Prince of Puke, Sultan of Sleaze, and the Pope of Trash, a title bestowed by William S. Burroughs.

The Academy Museum Exhibition

The exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is akin to a scene from “This Is Your Life,” a TV series that offered celebrities retrospectives of their lives. Waters expressed his gratitude and mentioned that everyone significant from his personal and professional life over the past 50 years seemed to be there. It was an overwhelming experience for him.

A Treasure Trove of Memories

The exhibition showcases production notes, audition fliers, and props from Waters’ works. Among the items on display is the lethal leg of lamb from “Serial Mom” (1994), which starred Kathleen Turner as a murderous matriarch. Visitors can also view scratch-n-sniff “Odorama” cards from the screenings of Waters’ suburban satire “Polyester” (1981).

A Dream Realized

Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, the co-curators, worked on this exhibition for four years. Many of the items were sourced from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where Waters has been storing his movie memorabilia since the mid-80s. 

Creating the exhibition was a challenge as they had to narrow down the original list of over 1,000 items to around 400. Jaffe described the process as a “hug and release,” acknowledging that they had to let go of some beloved items.

John Waters’ career, marked by audacious creativity and a penchant for the unconventional, continues to inspire a new generation of filmmakers and artists. The Academy Museum’s retrospective is a testament to his lasting influence on the world of cinema and beyond.