For some time, 2023 has been shaping up to be a year of reminiscence and reflection for writer and filmmaker John Waters, who has a career retrospective opening in September at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles followed by the unveiling of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The reminiscing got an early start on Wednesday, when Waters received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Baltimore.
Unlike other institutions that have given him honorary degrees, Waters said in his remarks, he actually attended the University of Baltimore in 1965. He said it was the first place to publish anything he wrote, a piece for a campus literary journal. He also used one of its auditoriums to hold the world premieres of three of his earliest movies, including “Pink Flamingos.”
“This is the only school after grade school I ever went to that actually claims me, and I am proud of that,” he told the audience.
Waters, 77, was the only recipient of an honorary degree this year from the University of Baltimore, which held commencement ceremonies on Wednesday at The Lyric for more than 400 graduates in three schools on its midtown campus. The 2,564-seat theater was nearly full during both morning and afternoon events.
Waters was recommended for his degree by a faculty committee “in recognition of his support for free artistic expression and his focus on the rich diversity of Baltimore City.”
University President and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke praised him as “a legendary filmmaker, social commentator, raconteur” and “a landmark American intellectual.” University System of Maryland regent Gary Attman said he is a “renowned filmmaker, actor, writer and artist” who has helped put Baltimore on the map.
“For people around the world, John Waters is synonymous with Baltimore,” Attman said. “Throughout his life, he’s shared his love of our city and its quirkiness and characters with film audiences who have flocked to see his work. It’s a great personal thrill for me to finally meet John, and we are so happy to have him with us today.”
Crediting the University
In past acceptance speeches, Waters has peppered his remarks with jokes that he’s going to become an abortion doctor and appeals for graduates to shake up the world. His 2015 commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design became a book that encourages graduates to do just that: Make Trouble.
Waters is also an artist who doesn’t like to do the same thing twice. He used his appearance at the university’s afternoon commencement ceremony to reflect on his early years as a writer and filmmaker and to credit the University of Baltimore with helping him get his start, in several ways.
“In 1965, when I went to the University of Baltimore, almost 50 years ago, it was a very different place than it is today,” he said. “They’d take anybody, and I’m living proof.”
Waters said his high school, Calvert Hall College High School, wouldn’t let him graduate “because I had long hair and truancy,” but he went to summer school at Boys Latin School of Maryland and passed. He said he enrolled at the University of Baltimore that fall “with a big chip on my shoulder,” but one teacher changed that.
The teacher was “a woman named Miss Norris, who helped start a literary magazine here that year, called Welter,” he said. “She encouraged me to write something for it and I did — an inside job about my grandfather and how he was waiting for death. It got published, my first anywhere. And while my parents were horrified about the subject matter, they were proud I was in print. And here I am 58 years later — 8 books, 17 movies!”
Welter is still alive, now produced by the university’s MFA program. Waters transferred in 1966 to New York University, and he credited the University of Baltimore for helping him get accepted there.
It was “probably because I was published at the University of Baltimore,” he said. “That really helped.”
Waters didn’t last at NYU, but he believes he was ahead of his time.
“True, I got thrown out of NYU, from the first university pot bust,” he said. “But pot’s legal now, isn’t it? Things change! I won!”
Waters said the University of Baltimore helped him even more when he returned to Baltimore and began making films.
“In 1972, 1974 and 1977,” he said, “they allowed me to have the world premiere of three of my most notorious trash epics, ‘Pink Flamingos,’ ‘Female Trouble’ and ‘Desperate Living,’ here at the Langsdale auditorium. Not here anymore, but it was.”
The university was a non-judgmental host for a budding filmmaker, and its status as an educational institution helped him get around the censors, he said.
“No questions asked. A flat rental. No censor board could hassle me. And every show I did sold out and I could keep all the money,” he said. “They never balked at the subject matter. They never objected to the insane crowds that showed up. Nope. Each premiere, they saved me and hid me with a cloak of education, and God knows I thank them.”
Waters ended by again thanking the university for the many ways it helped him.
“Maybe it was true then that anybody could get in, but I got out,” he told the graduates. “And I salute the University of Baltimore for helping me do just that. A Doctor of Humane Letters? I always said I’d be a good defense lawyer or a good psychiatrist. Is this the first step in a new career? All you need is one good teacher, and what an honorable profession that can be. And I believe I got one here, and so did you. Congratulations, and thank you very, very much.”
Free speech champion
In his introduction of Waters, Schmoke stressed his contributions as a champion of free speech.
“For most of us, we go through our lives not thinking much about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Schmoke said. “We hear from time to time some of the words in that document such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. But in our daily lives that amendment does not impinge upon our activities. However, for our honorary degree recipient the First Amendment is very much a part of his life and it is no exaggeration to state that he has spent his career protecting not only his but our rights guaranteed by this constitutional protection.”
Schmoke noted that most people know Waters by the characters and subjects of his books and movies, and his offbeat sense of humor.
“If you know only a little about this ‘local boy made good,’ you probably recognize him as a purveyor of what is commonly called bad taste,” he said. “That phrase captures a lot of things: a leisure suit, a big hairdo, a leopard-skin pattern on a garage-sale fur coat. It’s the laugh we get out of silly clothes, terrible dances, gaudy furniture, and so on. But it’s much more. In his decades in the public eye, John has made bad taste, and the appreciation of it, into an art form.”
But while Waters is making audiences laugh, he is also “consistently reminding us how much has changed in our society since he became an artist in Baltimore in the mid-1960s,” Schmoke said. “As both witness and partisan, he has been closely involved in pushing for acceptance – for those who are different, for those who may have been shunned. His message always has been about acceptance, wrapped up in the cellophane of a good laugh.”
Schmoke acknowledged that Waters didn’t have an easy time when he was starting out.
“In his early days of independent filmmaking, Mr. Waters ran headlong into some serious opposition to his work,” he said. “Namely, the Maryland State Censor Board. The board banned this allegedly transgressive man and his gritty, cultish films.”
But Waters persevered, and kept making movies that changed attitudes, Schmoke said.
“We could spend all day talking about the impact of John Waters on our culture, on our ideas about freedom,” he said. “And yes, we could give some credit to others, to this critic or that censor, for helping to establish him as an icon. Let me tell you: He did so much of that work by himself. In his unique way, and with his own highly refined sense of justice and fair play, he transformed our lives.”
In conferring the honorary degree, Schmoke encouraged Waters not to slow down.
“John, your work is not over,” he said. “In 2023, we still need to get over ourselves.”
New ‘Pope of Trash’ book
Another opportunity for reminiscing comes in the form of a new John Waters book that will be published in September – this time about him, not by him.
Presales began this month for“John Waters Pope of Trash,” a 256-page coffee table book that has been written as the official catalogue for the landmark exhibition that will be on view at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, 6067 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, from Sept. 17, 2023 to Aug. 4, 2024. Also called “John Waters Pope of Trash,” it’s the first comprehensive exhibit dedicated solely to Waters’ moviemaking, exploring his process, themes and style.
The book presents costumes, props, handwritten scripts, concept drawings, correspondence, promotional photography and other original materials from all of Waters’ features and shorts.
Spotlighting many of his longtime collaborators, it also features a new interview with Waters, as well as text by Academy Museum curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe; film historian Jeanine Basinger, founder of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives; film critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich and author-writer-producer David Simon that explore how Waters’ movies have redefined the possibilities of independent cinema.
“It’s the ultimate fan book,” said Rachel Whang, co-owner with Benn Ray of Atomic Books in Baltimore, which this month launched pre-sales for signed copies. “If you’re a fan of his movies, this is great insider information.”
William S. Burroughs dubbed Waters the “Pope of Trash” for his irreverence, humor and transgressive approach to filmmaking. Atomic Books in Hampden is the store that receives Waters’ fan mail and had a book signing this month for the softcover version of his latest book, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.”
DelMonico Books and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures are the publishers of John Waters Pope of Trash. Atomic Books is taking orders for the new book in person and on its website, atomicbooks.com. The price is $59.95 for signed copies. The books are scheduled to arrive at the store on September 26, but the sellers warn the date is tentative.
Other contributors to the book include: Sean Baker, writer and director best known for The Florida Project (2017) and Tangerine (2015); Debbie Harry, front-woman and cofounder of Blondie; filmmaker Barry Jenkins, best known for “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018); actor and filmmaker Johnny Knoxville, star of the Jackass franchise; filmmaker and writer Bruce LaBruce; actress Ricki Lake; country music singer Orville Peck; singer and songwriter Iggy Pop; artist Cindy Sherman; actress Kathleen Turner; Killer Films cofounder Christine Vachon; and writer and director Edgar Wright.