When John Waters was creating his "celluloid atrocities" in 1970s Baltimore — directing the 300-pound drag queen Divine to commit some of the most nauseating acts ever caught on film — he probably never dreamed that he would one day see two of his movies transformed into big-budget Broadway musicals or that he'd serve as a juror at prestigious European film festivals.
At the same time, Waters' audiences probably wouldn't expect that the auteur of low-budget shock comedies such as "Desperate Living" and "Pink Flamingos" would one day turn out a deeply compassionate, insightful book about real-life characters living on the margins of society, both at the pinnacle of achievement and deep in the gutter.
"Role Models" collects 10 essays on figures Waters has admired throughout his life. He begins with Johnny Mathis ("So unironic, so perfect"), who welcomes the filmmaker into his Hollywood Hills home clad in all white and shoeless, the picture of grace.
He visits his childhood obsession Patty McCormack, the original "Bad Seed" on Broadway and in the movie. Recently seen as the first lady in "Frost/Nixon," the actress used to dread talking about the role that won her an Academy Award nomination at 11, but she has made peace with it today.
Waters revels in the studio's forcing McCormack to attend the Oscars ceremony dressed as her character and wishes Charlize Theron had done the same after her turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." "Imagine that acceptance speech!" he writes.
Waters lauds Comme des Garcons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, who makes clothes with intentional stains, fraying and puckered seams. Her bad reviews from critics "make me prouder to wear her clothes," he writes. He describes his love for the difficult novels of Denton Welch and Lionel Shriver, or the deconstructed and confrontational art of his "roommates" Mike Kelley, Cy Twombly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose work he owns. Little Richard proves to Waters that his outsized persona is no act.
But Waters also admires the unadmirable. His early fascination with the Manson family murders drew him to California to observe the trials, and he later struck up a genuine closeness with Leslie Van Houton.
William S. Burroughs once pronounced him "the pope of trash," but John Waters has matured into a thoughtful, often astute essayist. In the final chapter of "Role Models," he fantasizes about an alternative career as a cult leader instead of a cult filmmaker, instructing his acolytes to "add to their threatening glamour" with outlandish makeup and clothing while pursuing their own particular bliss.
That's the author's true inspiration. And though some of his subjects have found themselves in financial ruin and chemically dependent at the end of their lives, he doesn't pronounce judgment on where their decisions have taken them.
In Waters' world, authenticity is sometimes more important than a fully funded 401(k).
"Role Models" by John Waters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25)