The Best Picture Oscar for 1970 was won by the hard-hitting biopic Patton, but by all rights it should have gone to John Waters’s depravity fantasia Multiple Maniacs. Call me all sorts of names, but the film — a black-and-white, underground romp about a carnival of perverts, the Infant of Prague, and a raping lobster — is hilarious, bracingly original, and full of auteurist textures. Long before outrageous movie comedy became a stock-in-trade, Waters did it best, with a subversive glee that turned expectations on their head while simultaneously mocking deviants and the prudes who loathe them.
The film’s campily seething tone switches when Divine — Waters’s plus-size drag leading lady, a master at spitting out contemptuous retorts — is seduced by a lesbian and some rosary beads heading up Divine’s ass, as Jesus is nailed to the cross, in a long and riveting sequence. “It’s a very American movie,” Waters said in a mid-July interview. “The National Guard comes in and kills the monster.” He meant Divine, not the crustacean. “Divine didn’t want to be a woman,” he explained. “He never walked around in drag like that. He hated it, like all fat people. They get hot too quick with all that shit on. He wanted to be Godzilla — a monster.”
I’ve interviewed Waters many times, starting in the 1970s, and he’s always been glib and insightful about his own career, saying zany yet affable things in an assured voice that makes sense, considering he’s never wavered or buckled under in his lifelong dedication to shaking up middle-class values and jangling people’s nerves. The work from his renegade days eventually changed the mass culture when his graphically antiestablishment sensibility started seeping into other people’s big-budget films — especially those by the Farrelly, Coen, and Wachowski siblings — and he’s tasted some deserved rewards himself. (His 1988 musical dramedy about integration, Hairspray, became a smash Broadway musical, then a movie remake, and now it’ll be a live TV experience in December.) He’s the premier eminence of cult cinema — sort of like a friendly professor, with an edge — and the smart freaks all hang on his every new book and public appearance while praying the money folks will green-light another raunchy screen pageant.
Waters did Multiple Maniacs to spoof the hippies’ peace-and-love movement two years before his breakthrough cult classic, Pink Flamingos (which was also about the twisted glory of depraved people). His parents paid for the film, but he gave them back every penny, and he’s grateful that they never saw it. But for others who may have missed this obscure nugget, another chance has arisen: It’s been restored and will open at the IFC Center on August 5, followed by a national rollout. “They made it look great,” Waters told me. “It finally looks like a bad John Cassavetes movie. I saw it at the Provincetown Film Festival with an audience for the first time in thirty years and it played well, but they looked shocked. Maybe it’s worse than it ever was.”
New York was the last place Multiple Maniacs played back then, said Waters, adding, “I’m thrilled the re-release is premiering at IFC, because that’s where the Waverly was, which is where Hairspray had a great success.” He is also tickled that it’s Janus that’s re-releasing Maniacs; that’s the company that distributed the art films he and Divine went downtown to see in their Baltimore youth. (“Divine hated Ingmar Bergman. He’d say, ‘Can’t we see something with Elizabeth Taylor?’ ” But Waters sees Bergmanesque touches in his film and laughingly dubs it Rancid Strawberries.)
“We were punks,” he remembered. “We were making fun of peace and love. And hippies came to see it, and they liked that they were being attacked — and they turned into punks a few years later. I still feel comfortable as a punk. They’re always down-low gay anyway. A lot of bikers came, and some gays, but the gay people were crazy. They didn’t get along with other people back then, or with hippies that were yippies [politicized hippies]. They were troublemakers. Everybody was a troublemaker. But I was a yippie, not a hippie. Divine and I used to go to communes in San Francisco and throw sugar and meat on the front steps of vegetarians. We’re multiple maniacs.”
Divine’s not the only member of Waters’s signature troupe to pop up here with amusingly emphatic acting. There’s Mink Stole (as the lascivious church lady), David Lochary (as Divine’s scheming boyfriend), and Cookie Mueller (as Divine’s topless dropout daughter). In her first Waters film, the daffy Edith Massey has two small roles, delightfully appearing to process her lines as she says them. Waters had been tipped off that “You’ve got to meet this woman,” so he checked out the fascinatingly affectless character at the bar where she worked, then cast her, using the bar as a setting. “Audiences really liked her,” he said, “so I gave her a bigger part next time” — in Pink Flamingos, where she’s sitting in a crib and mewling to Divine, “Babs! Babs! Why isn’t the egg man here?”
The Maniacs cast gamely performed some lengthy scenes, and though there were rehearsals, the movie was written as they went along, whenever the money came in. “Everyone in that movie was brave,” said Waters. “We just went for it. We didn’t think it was odd. It was group madness, almost like a political action. We didn’t ask permission. There was nobody that was for us, so it was hit and run.” For Waters cultists, it’s easy to see Maniacs as a dry run for Flamingos. “In some scenes, it was trainer wheels for Divine,” said Waters, “like when she eats that cow heart. I got it from the butcher the day before, and it was rancid.” And it paved the way for Divine’s legendary consumption of real-life doggie poo at the end of Pink Flamingos, just in case audiences had become the least bit comfortable by that point.
Some of Maniacs‘ scenes were shot in Waters’s Baltimore apartment, “and not one thing was changed. You can see all the posters, all the influences I had.” One of them is for the 1968 movie Boom!, a marvelous Tennessee Williams mess with, yes, La Liz as the dying Sissy Goforth, Richard Burton as the angel of death, and Noël Coward as the Witch of Capri, all upstaged by Liz’s glittery headdress.
When Divine’s character was on a rampage, Waters’s parents’ front lawn became the battlefield. “You can see the house,” he recalls of the shoot. “When Divine is walking around in the snow with an ax and looks in a house, that’s my mother’s neighbor! We didn’t even tell her.” Waters thinks the woman wasn’t home during the filming, or she might have turned into a multiple maniac herself.
Maniacs premiered at Baltimore’s Unitarian Church, but that didn’t stop the Maryland censors from going ballistic on the result. They banned it, though a judge overturned that, albeit very reluctantly. As Waters remembers it, “He said, ‘My eyes were insulted for ninety minutes, but it’s not illegal.’ ”
Drugs certainly seem to have infused the film’s assault on the senses; Waters was wiggy on LSD at the time. In fact, he thought of Lobstora — the shellfish character done by Vince Peranio — when he was tripping his tits off in the LGBT resort of Provincetown and kept seeing postcards of lobsters.
The writer-director’s religious roots also inform the film and its jaunty juxtaposition of wanton sex and Jesus’ noble suffering. “I went to Catholic high school and hated it,” Waters said, “and I still believe the Catholic Church is my enemy and I hate the new pope more than anything. But still, it made me theatrical. I had that lunacy of their beliefs introduced to me, but I still find it really evil. Not all Catholics. My mother took comfort in it and didn’t push it on anybody. But if they morally judge someone and tell you how to live, it’s none of their fucking business.”
Any regrets he worries he might go to hell for? “When the guy shoots up for real on the altar!” said Waters. “I think, ‘Why did I do that?’ And he only died recently. I think he OD’d.” Still, in certain circles, he’s more legendary than anything in Patton.
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