One Fine Show: John Waters at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened show at a museum outside New York City, a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

John Waters isn’t just a beloved avant-garde filmmaker or that guy who has a famous opinion about what you should do if you go home with someone and they don’t own any books. (The Strand put that quote on a tote bag.) He’s also a major art collector who made headlines a few years ago when he bequeathed 372 works by 125 artists, the bulk of his collection, to his hometown museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art. Speaking to Artnet about his collecting on that occasion, he recalled having a Joan Miró poster on his wall as a child. “All the other kids hated it,” he said. “I realized the power of art and how it could infuriate people—and I’ve been a collector ever since.”

A still from the film Hairspray by John Waters
Hairspray (1988). Courtesy of Warner Bros., photographed by Henny Garfunkel

His dual passions for collecting and outrage come together in a just-opened show at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles entitled “John Waters: Pope of Trash”—a title bestowed upon the director by William S. Burroughs in 1986. The show brings together ephemera from across Waters’ long film career, which includes classics such as Hairspray (1988) and Pink Flamingos (1972). Those seeing the latter at the drive-in would receive a promotional Pink Phlem-ingo Barf Bag, and this, too, is on display.

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As with his movies, there’s plenty of heart to go with the camp. You can see his original Bell and Howell Camera 16 mm camera, on which he shot Eat Your Makeup (1968) and some of Multiple Maniacs (1970), as well as the expense ledger for the former (“Film: 5.25”). These pair well with the electric chair from Female Trouble (1974) and the leg of lamb Kathleen Turner uses as a murder weapon in Serial Mom (1994).

Some might be tempted to think that someone who aims to shock and amuse must be flippant in the practice of his craft. Art these days is supposed to teach us all how to be better people, right? But to feel Waters’ hand in his work is to understand the effort that went into them. He sweat to make us all vomit.

John Waters
John Waters. ob Kim/Getty Images for Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony

There are also plenty of costumes, including Ricki Lake’s roach dress from Hairspray. Everyone now agrees that Hollywood hasn’t always done the best job casting people who don’t already look like other people who have been in movies. Grindhouse schlock from the ‘70s and ‘80s still tortured beautiful blonde women, they were just a little less beautiful than Alfred Hitchcock’s. Waters was in the same kinds of theaters, but he went out of his way to write roles for people like Devine and Jean Hill, who are celebrated in this show through these outfits and photographs.

It’s pretty wild that the people who give out the Oscars staged a show for a man who has never even tried to win one, but to their credit, they seem to be catching up with him.

“John Waters: Pope of Trash” is on view at the Academy Museum through August 4, 2024. 

One Fine Show: John Waters at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles