Home » Books » ‘Role Models’ exposes John Waters’ softer side

‘Role Models’ exposes John Waters’ softer side

Whenever Johnny Mathis proclaims “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or suggests “We Need a Little Christmas,” I think of John Waters.

That’s right, Johnny Mathis reminds me of cult filmmaker John Waters.

Waters devotes the first chapter of his memoir, “Role Models” to Mathis. In the essay, “Johnny and Me,” Waters, who wishes he were Mathis, surmises he idolizes Mathis because they’re opposites. You know, since Mathis is known for crooning romantic ballads like “Chances Are” and Waters is known for directing movies like “Pink Flamingos,” in which the late great Divine ate dog feces. For reals.

Thanks to the success of “Hairspray,” Waters has earned some mainstream success, but he’s still got a lot of the old (or young) John Waters in him. Another chapter, “Outsider Porn,” celebrates two directors of amateur porn. Waters reflects on their work the way film students dissect the movies of Bergman and Buñuel.

Waters asks if enjoying this amateur porn – he refers to the directors as artists – makes him a pervert and decides it does. After studying on the matter, I disagreed with him. From my understanding, the flicks depict only consenting adults, so in my book, he’s no perv.

I was more offended by “Roommates,” in which Waters discusses his favorite artists. As a dutiful student, I researched these artists and once I familiarized myself with their work, I decided I prefer “Dogs Playing Pool.”

Waters’ book suggestions, put forth in “Bookworm,” seem more to my taste and I’ve added them to my to-read list. The bookworm writes of Tennessee Williams in “The Kindness of Strangers,” which begins with Waters declaring that Williams saved his life. Waters’ interest in Williams began in Catholic Sunday school where he learned Williams was a “bad man.” When the adolescent couldn’t check out one of the writer’s books from the library, he stole it and within the pages found people like him – outsiders who didn’t want to fit in.

Waters had a chance to meet his idol once, but decided the time wasn’t right. He does, however, encourage folks to meet their idols whenever possible. He believes this in spite of the disastrous evening he spent with Little Richard.

Oh, the evening began well enough with Waters, who had always wanted to switch identities with Little Richard, telling Little Richard he wished he (LR) had been the pope. By evening’s end, Waters fears he and Little Richard will become engaged in a fistfight.

But John Waters is no fighter. He’s too much of a softie. The chapter, “Baltimore Heroes,” in which he discusses his favorite bars, underscores this soft side.

When Waters goes in search of his Baltimore heroes, including a lesbian stripper named Zorro, he finds their children. Zorro’s daughter shares sad stories of her unstable upbringing and Waters contrasts this with the safety and comfort he felt during his childhood. Still, even as Waters listens to the daughter admit her mother never showed her kindness, he points out that Zorro raised a well-adjusted happy woman and encourages her to realize she was the light in her mother’s life.

Waters also shows his soft side in “Leslie,” the chapter dedicated to his friend and former Charles Manson devotee, Leslie Van Houten.

Waters and Van Houten became pen pals in the 1980s after she refused his offer to be interviewed for “Rolling Stone” magazine. He eventually began visiting her and they’ve remained friends. By the time they started their correspondence, Waters had abandoned his younger, cavalier attitude about the Manson murders. He, among other things, had dedicated “Pink Flamingos” to the Manson girls and “Female Trouble” to Charles “Tex” Watson.

Of course, in her youth, Van Houten participated in a double murder. Her friend acknowledges this. Yet, in a moving, thought-provoking essay, he shows us the girl Van Houten was and the woman she is now.

After reading “Role Models,” I quit associating Van Houten with that creepy cult leader Manson. I now associate her with that softie cult filmmaker John Waters. It’s an improvement both friends could appreciate.

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