This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Waters’ debut feature, Mondo Trasho, which made his mark as one of the most provocative voices in American cinema. From controversial classics such as Pink Flamingos to his more wide-appeal favourites such as Hairspray and Serial Mom, Waters has truly proven himself as a distinctly brilliant auteur, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. What makes him so distinct is his consistently brilliant yet underappreciated style, despite such a wide variety of work under his filmography.
Waters has a strangely unique style that makes his films feel similar to stage productions. We immediately see this theatrical style in the performances alone. Looking at this scene in his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, where Mr. David (David Lochary) announces that he’ll be leaving his partner, Lady Divine (Divine), each of his actors are giving very heightened, over-the-top performances that translate better to stage than on film. He also writes very theatrical dialogue, especially in his monologues, such as the infamous “Filth is my politics” scene from Pink Flamingos, which is written, shot and performed as if Divine stepped out onto the spotlight at centre stage and delivered each viciously striking word of the monologue to the audience. Also, much like Shakespeare’s King’s Men company, Waters often uses the same actors throughout his body of work, specifically Divine, Mary Vivian Pierce, David Lochary, Edith Massey and Mink Stole, among many others, who are known as the Dreamlanders, named for his production company. His work is so perfectly tuned to the stage that it makes perfect sense that two of Waters’ films (Cry-Baby and most famously, Hairspray) have been adapted for Broadway.
It’s a rarity for filmmakers to go for such a uniquely theatrical style throughout their career, but Waters pulls it off so perfectly. In an interview with frequent Waters collaborator Mink Stole, she described his writing and reading of the Multiple Maniacs dialogue as “frantic [with] lots of italics, no pauses for breath, [and] no pauses for emphasis.” In the context of Maniacs, it helps ramp up the tension as the murder plots of Mr. David and Lady Divine collide into a crazy climax that never simmers until the bitter end. In the context of his whole filmography, it takes us into a unique world of that same frantic madness that Stole described, and also allows Waters to get his points across in a way that’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer swinging into the windshield of a car, which seems to be his mission. He’s definitely brash about it all, but Waters’ style definitely gives us a glimpse at his unique, unhinged view.
His style also greatly benefits films like Cry-Baby that rely so much on music. Looking at Cry-Baby specifically, Waters’ theatrical style really pays off during the climactic ‘Please Mr. Jailer’ number, which in the context of the film, is the big showstopping moment akin to any great Broadway musical. There are others like this one placed throughout the film, but a lot of the bigger ones are in the second half of the film. With that in mind, this and the other big musical numbers, should come out of nowhere, but it feels so natural not only because of his stage-like dialogue and performances from his actors but also in a visual way. During the number itself, Waters uses a lot of symmetrical framing in his wide shots, which makes it look like we’re watching people perform on stage. It’s also incredibly well choreographed, much like the other numbers of the film, and it helps give that heightened feel to the scene. It’s one of those beautifully perfect moments in his filmography that could have perfectly been adapted for the stage, and there’s no way that it would have the impact it does on the rest of the film if it weren’t for Waters’ heightened theatrical style.
Whether he likes it or not, John Waters will always be remembered for creating some of the most fucked up films ever made, but it’s often easy to forget why we keep coming back to them. He found a way to make these fucked up films so interesting, and part of it has to do with his overtly theatrical style. Not only is it an incredibly charming way to differentiate himself from the rest, but it also adds a lot of heightened tension to his films like Multiple Maniacs that feed off of that. It may be such a minor aspect of his body of work, but John Waters’ theatrical style really is more major than we give it credit for.