John Waters reflects on Pink Flamingos as it approaches 50 and joins the National Film Registry

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Divine, the drag persona of actor Harris Glenn Milstead, performs in John Waters’ film Pink Flamingos. The Library of Congress announced last week that it has added the movie into the National Film Registry. Image by New Line Cinema.

When Pink Flamingos was released in 1972, the John Waters movie was censored in Maryland and banned in several countries. Made for $12,000, featuring the tagline “an exercise in bad taste,” it found an underground audience at midnight showings around the country.

This month, just 12 weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of its release, Pink Flamingos has gained new recognition. The U. S. Library of Congress announced last week that it has added Waters’ transgressive black comedy to the National Film Registry, a list of movies that the U. S. government deems “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

Let that sink in: A division of the federal government is calling attention to the film that Interview magazine called “the sickest movie ever made,” and others have called filthy, hideous, disgusting, outrageous and obscene. A movie that depicts murder, bestiality, rape, dismemberment and the ingestion of feces. A movie whose central character is a drag queen who wants to be known as “The Filthiest Person Alive.”

According to the Library, Pink Flamingos is one of 25 movies that were selected this year to join the registry, along with more mainstream fare such as Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Created in 1988, the registry now has 825 films in all. According to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the 2021 selections represent one of the most diverse classes of films to join the list, with movies dating back nearly 120 years and representing the work of big studios, independent filmmakers, documentarians, women directors and filmmakers of color.

Pink Flamingos is a first in several ways. It’s the first movie on the list by Waters, who was writer and director. It’s one of the first, if not the first, filmed in Baltimore and Baltimore County. It’s one of the first “underground” movies on the list. It’s one of first made for less than $15,000. It’s the first to feature an edgy drag queen in a lead role. In press materials announcing the list, the Library of Congress refers to it as a “landmark in queer cinema.”

Waters, who has received a number of tributes and accolades in recent years, said he’s proud that Pink Flamingos was chosen.

“I have seen that list every year and fantasized that they would pick Pink Flamingos,” he said in a video on the Library’s website. “I think that that one had the best chance, weirdly, because you can dislike the movie but you can’t say it didn’t affect culture in any way, because I think Divine made all drag queens more fierce and more hip and funnier and crazier. And so I think it has had an effect so I’m just incredibly proud by it. It’s very, very exciting to me, with no irony at all.”

The selection gave Waters, 75, a new subject to talk about during his stage performance in Baltimore on Tuesday, the last of 17 shows over 22 days in his spoken-word holiday tour, “A John Waters Christmas – It’s a Yuletide Massacre.” He told the sold-out audience that he found it “really hilarious” that the film was selected.

“That shocked me,” he said. “A movie that has been found obscene, every single time we’ve gone to court. I have never won a case. Ever. That is pretty amazing.”

During a Q&A session, Waters said he was still attempting to understand what it means to add a movie such as Pink Flamingos to the National Film Registry:

“Are they going to have screenings of this? I’m trying to imagine it.”

But he admitted that he can see the court’s point of view:

“I always said that Pink Flamingos at midnight is a joyous experience; at 10 in the morning in court it is obscene.”

According to the Library of Congress, the National Film Registry is not a list of the best movies ever made, or the most lucrative. It was created as a list of movies that have somehow struck a chord with the America public – and deserve to be preserved. They are, as Waters puts it, “films that are, well, remembered, loved, hated and whatever caused people to continue to talk about it for a long time.”

To be considered, movies must be at least 10 years old. Hayden, who previously headed the Enoch Pratt Free Library system in Baltimore, solicits nominations from the general public (which suggested more than 6,100 titles this year), but also confers with members of the National Film Preservation Board and library specialists before announcing the final selections. A complete list of the movies added this year is at loc.gov.

Pink Flamingos tells the story of a woman and her family, who compete with a couple in Baltimore to be named The Filthiest People Alive. The breakout star was Harris Glenn Milstead, the drag performer known as Divine. He played a criminal, living under the name Babs Johnson, who vied with rivals Connie and Raymond Marble, played by Mink Stole and the late David Lochary.

In the end, good triumphs over evil, sort of, when the Marbles are vanquished and Divine prevails. There are many scenes that were included for their shock value, including a man with a “singing anus” and a transgender woman, played by Elizabeth Coffey, who was filmed before her gender affirmation surgery was complete. The most talked-about scene comes at the end, when a victorious Divine is seen eating dog droppings — something not shown in a movie before. Waters says he expects that scene will be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary.

Following is the transcript of an interview with Waters about the movie and his reaction to its selection for the National Film Registry. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited:

Baltimore Fishbowl: You’ve said that of all your movies, you thought Pink Flamingos had the best chance of being added to the National Film Registry.

John Waters: I figured if they were going to take a chance with me, why not go all the way? Because, I mean, it would have been much easier to pick Hairspray, if they were going to pick one of my movies. But Pink Flamingos is a much braver choice and I’m really happy that whoever nominates and does all these things, I really thank them because they stuck their neck out, too.

BFB: You’ve said you think Serial Mom is your best film. Can you say where Pink Flamingos fits in your filmography?

JW: It’s my most notorious, and when I die it’ll be in the first paragraph of my obituary. I think I’ve made better films, but that one certainly describes the aesthetic and the anarchy in film that I was trying to introduce…And I think it’s still funny and at the same time it doesn’t really get old. It’s still just as alarming as it always was, if not more so.

BFB: One of your fans reacted to the Library’s selection by writing on social media: “An exercise in bad taste is now regarded as of national cultural importance.” Is that what this decision signifies?

JW: I think basically it’s a movie that has affected culture. And it still works and it’s still out there. Time did not make it get more politically correct or nicer. In some ways, it’s maybe even worse. But at the same time, people have come to realize that it has brought joy to lots of people with a rebellious sense of humor. So I’m honored by it, for real.

I wish Divine was alive to know [about the listing]. I wish my parents were alive. They would really be shocked. I was shocked, but pleased by the decision, completely. Because, I always said, I did make bad taste one percent more respectable. And Pink Flamingos began that. And Pink Flamingos was a punk movie. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as punk. So it did predict a lot. And today it’s just as crazy or even crazier than it was when it came out.

BFB: Is this another sign of society catching up to your view of the world, the reverse mainstream-ization of John Waters?

JW: I always said that my humor is now American humor. The kind that used to be called sick humor and all that, now is just American humor. So I think in a way I’ve changed less than society has.

BFB: That means society caught up to you, or society came to appreciate you.

JW: I’d say that sounds a little pretentious [if I say that]. It’s fine if you want to say it. But I don’t question why, when good things happen. It’s just exciting to me that it has been seen in this light by the government, of all people.

BFB: It’s interesting that it happened after Trump left office and Biden came in.

JW: I don’t think Biden had a lot to do with it…Has he seen Pink Flamingos? I always thought, of all the presidents, Obama might have and Clinton might have. Biden, maybe not. Trump, I doubt it. But Trump used to go to Studio 54 and all that kind of stuff. Who knows?

BFB: This year’s film registry additions clearly represent the diversity of America. In announcing its selections, the Library of Congress referred to Pink Flamingos as “a landmark in queer cinema.”

JW: I’m fine with that, but it was not just a gay audience ever. It was an audience of people who were angry and had a sense of humor about themselves and didn’t fit in their own minority. That’s who the audience was and still is for Pink Flamingos. When I first premiered it at the Langsdale Auditorium at the University of Baltimore — which I rented for the first three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the shows were at 8, 10 and midnight — the audience was completely mixed. It was every kind of person, except normal. But it was a very diverse audience. My movies always get a diverse audience, I think. I’ve never been a separatist.

Is it a queer movie? I guess. I mean it’s queer in the old-fashioned sense of the word, what they used against you in school, I guess. Are any of the characters actually gay in Pink Flamingos? I’m trying to think. No. But we make so much fun of heterosexuality, they might as well be.

BFB: With Divine playing The Filthiest Person Alive, Pink Flamingos shows audiences a different sort of drag queen than they’d seen before.

JW: They had seen drag queens, because the [1968] movie ‘The Queen’ had been out. But it was square drag queens, drag queens that wanted to be Bess Myerson, Miss America, their mother. Divine frightened those kinds of drag queens. Divine scared other drag queens because he would show up at events carrying a chain saw with fake scars on his face. So Divine, I think, invented the edgy drag queen. His influence is still felt today on [RuPaul’s Drag Race.] I think every single person on that show is influenced by Divine in some way.

BFB: Pink Flamingos must be one of the least expensive films ever added to the registry.

JW: That could be true. It cost $10,000, but I went overboard. It was $12,000. In an interview I did recently, somebody pointed out that today that would be, I forget, they said $50,000 or $40,000. Which was not a small gift from my father to stick his neck out and lend me that money, which I did pay back. That kind of amazed me, when I look back on that. My father never saw Pink Flamingos. No parent even today would be proud that a child made Pink Flamingos.

BFB: Look at some of the other films on the 2021 list – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; A Nightmare on Elm Street; Stop Making Sense; George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode VI – the Return of the Jedi; Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (The complete list is at loc.gov.)

JW: I know. It is great that it is in very good company. I just salute them for having the nerve to pick it.

BFB: How did you celebrate the announcement?

JW: I did talk to Mink [Stole] and Mary Vivian Pearce and Pat Moran and Vincent Peranio, the real Dreamlanders that are still alive that worked on Pink Flamingos.

BFB: New Line Cinema played a key role too.

JW: I did write to Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, because he was very brave. You know, he picked up that movie. He distributed it. So Bob Shaye and I and New Line Cinema, we kind of grew together. That’s when they started out, too. I remember when I sent him the print, because I had sent New Line Multiple Maniacs and they said come back when you have something more polished. If you ever could have imagined that was Pink Flamingos. And he told me that after the scene with Elizabeth Coffey, he said, Oh my god, we’ve got to distribute this one.

BFB: Where was it banned?

JW: Oh, in many countries. It was banned in America too. [Maryland film censor board head] Mary Avara made me cut two scenes. She made me cut the fellatio scene and the artificial insemination scene and she said I should have cut [the scene where Divine eats dog droppings]…In London, it wasn’t allowed to be seen completely uncut until very recently, actually. Even the head of the censor board said, ‘We do not know how to deal with intentional bad taste.’

BFB: And now it has been shown on cable in the U.S.

JW: The Sundance channel showed it on television, which fully shocked me. They called and said, Can we cut the blowjob scene? I said yes, but they forgot to.

BFB: You’ve hinted that you have something big in the works to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Pink Flamingos, on March 17, 2022. Was this it?

JW: There is one other thing, but I can’t tell.

BFB: Is Pink Flamingos due to be restored?

JW: I can’t talk about that. It has been kept up. New Line put out the 25th anniversary [edition] of it a long time ago. That was with different footage and everything. There are some possibilities coming up but as I say, I can’t talk about it.

BFB: Could you make Pink Flamingos today?

JW: Of course you could. You would have made it on your cell phone. It would have been a lot easier. But it would be distributed in a completely different way. This was before video, before cable, before anything. So we went to each city and we nursed it. It took two years to go around America, to open it in each city. We had one night at midnight, two nights, three nights. We’d never do that today. Today it would open at a…theater chain on a Friday night, in six theaters, and if it didn’t work, it’d be over. So it’s a completely different release pattern, a different time. Underground movies – there literally is no such thing as midnight movies anymore. It would be distributed very differently. Would it work today? I think it would. Even if you hate it, I think it’s timeless. You could still hate it and say it’s timeless.

BFB: Could it be remade today, the way Hairspray was?

JW: Remade? I never understand why they remake [movies]. You should remake the ones that didn’t work, not the ones that did. I hope it isn’t, really. Although, I don’t know. I wrote a sequel to it that was never made. Who knows if it could be remade? I don’t know why you would. It would get an NC-17 rating, which would put off anybody remaking it, probably.

BFB: Could you show people eating dog droppings today, the way you did in the last scene? Is that legal today?

JW: When we made the movie, there was no law against it. The only law against it today is in the porn world. That’s one rule they don’t do, but that’s for sexual reasons, and we certainly did not do it for coprophagia, which is the sexual attraction of eating [excrement.]. No, it was not that at all. It was done for anarchy. It was a political statement, and it was a publicity stunt…I always said the only other person that would have done it is Johnny Knoxville…in the Jackass movies.

BFB: You just finished a 17-city tour with your ‘A John Waters Christmas – It’s a Yuletide Massacre’ show. How did it go?

JW: It’s been great. It’s been crowded. The audiences have been good. I wrote a whole new show.

BFB: Did COVID-19 put a damper on it?

JW: Did it put a damper on it? I say to the audience: ‘This night might be the last night you ever go out.’ They freeze for a minute and laugh.

BFB: At one stop on the tour, you were picketed by religious zealots. A group outside the Heights Theater in Houston held up a banner that read “We Protest the Blasphemy of the Holy Family in John Waters’ Yuletide Massacre!” Were you picketed in other cities?

JW: It was just that one place, in Houston. And I don’t know why or anything, because all they did was read a press release from two years ago that said something about Bethlehem. I have friends who refuse to believe I didn’t pay them to come. I really didn’t know anything about it until I got to the theater. Somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, ‘I didn’t even know you were playing. I was just walking down the street and I saw the pickets and I saw you were here so I bought a ticket.’ I thought, see, they always help.

BFB: Free publicity…

JW: It’s very nostalgic because these days, the censors I fear are young, politically-correct liberals. They’re the ones who are more apt to be outraged these days, even though I am a bleeding-heart liberal.

BFB: The protesters in Houston accused you of blasphemy.

JW: If they saw the show, they’d be even madder.

BFB: There wasn’t a riot or anything?

JW: No. It kind of reminded me of the ‘90s at The Charles [theater in Baltimore], when Hail Mary was playing. All these pickets were there for that. One picket said, ‘Don’t insult my mother.’ I thought, what are you, Jesus? And I had pickets in Polyester, out in front of Elmer’s house, who runs a porno theater. So it reminded me of that. I felt like Elmer in Polyester.

BFB: Are you going to do your Christmas tour again next year?

JW: Yes.

BFB: You also have a Valentine’s Day show in Baltimore and an Eastertime tribute to Edith the Egg Lady in California in April.

JW: There are more than that. That’s my other show, called False Negative now. That’s what used to be This Filthy World. Yeah, I’m back on the road. The Filth Circuit.



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