In rare form

John Waters may be an unlikely celeb, but you wouldn't know it from the way he hobnobs at Cannes.


CANNES, France -- John Waters ducked into a Mercedes on his way to a luncheon with film distributors last week, and a blast of heat bounced off the leather seat like the Beltway in July. When the driver informed him that the air conditioning wasn't working, Waters says with a hint of indignation, "Let's not get this car again."

John Waters in a Mercedes? In a Mercedes driven by a chauffeur? A Mercedes that wasn't up to his standards? It seems an unlikely pairing.

But Waters will be the first to tell you that the irony is over. The man who made his first movie, "Hag in a Black Leather Coat," on his parents' roof for $80 in 1964 and who turned low-budget, gross-out fare such as "Pink Flamingos" (1972) into midnight art-house staples has been successful for a long time.

So it's perfectly fitting that he's at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival -- again -- where his new movie, "Cecil B. DeMented," premiered Thursday at the Palais des Festivals.

Waters loves Cannes, and Cannes has responded in kind. He has secured financing for two of his films here on cocktail napkins. He has served on the jury. And he has presented his creations in the Palais, the Taj Mahal of cinema.

The first time he walked up the red carpet of the Palais to the flash of paparazzi and to the murmurs of the European community was in 1981 with "Polyester." The thrill does not get old.

"It's the closest I'll ever get to feeling like the pope," he says as the defective Mercedes crawls through traffic on the main drag of the Croisette. He has just come from a yacht party in Cannes Harbor, where he entertained the U.S. press with shrimp and chocolate mousse cake and sound bites.

A yacht in Cannes could not be further from the world of the bohemian cinematic terrorists that Waters created for "Cecil B. DeMented," especially the group's ringleader, Cecil (Stephen Dorff). DeMented masterminds a plot to kidnap an A-list actress, played by Melanie Griffith, and forces her to act in the ultimate cinema verite. Griffith gets involved in real gunfights, jumps from a tall building and shows the height of her devotion by near self-immolation.

At first she is a terrified victim. Then she is fatalistic. Then she is an aggressive revolutionary garnering her best reviews ever. All to please Cecil B. -- who by the way, isn't intended to be a surrogate for John W.

"I would be a fan of Cecil B. DeMented, but I'm certainly not him," Waters says. "I hope I have a better sense of humor, because my parents love me. His parents didn't."

DeMented's gang is out to shatter the conventions of mainstream cinema: the violence co-opted from independent movies, the rudeness of audiences who talk back at the screen and all other irritating manner of popcorn culture.

"I appreciate certain filmmakers for their individuality and not buying into stuff," Dorff says. "I think John is the godfather of that."

"Cecil B" features some Waters regulars: Ricki Lake, Mink Stole and Patricia Hearst, whose real-life arc is not coincidentally similar to Melanie Griffith's character. But the real star is -- and usually has been for the 54-year-old Waters -- Baltimore.

In "Cecil B. DeMented" the Baltimore of his cinema-crazed youth comes to life. The marquees of landmark theaters such as the Hippodrome and the Senator flick by and they remain in your consciousness as the craziness unfolds. (The key kidnapping scene takes place at the Senator, and the theater will hold the U.S. premiere of "Cecil B. DeMented" on Aug. 3 to benefit AIDS Action Baltimore.)

Baltimore takes a good-natured skewering. Waters gauzes the city in provincialism. The film commission plies guests with crab cakes and oysters. The denizens grovel at the feet of Griffith upon her arrival for a premiere, and she smears them in private with martini-fueled venom.

But Baltimore understands, Waters says, his trademark mustache bouncing with every word. The joke just might be on other cities. "Baltimore is not provincial," he says. "I feel New York is provincial, to tell you the truth. Baltimore has way more of a cutting edge than Greenwich Village. We have full nudity in Baltimore, we have real biker bars.

"I'm inspired still by the eccentricities of the people [in Baltimore] who do not believe they're one bit eccentric," he says. "People treat me great there. They don't care about this stuff. I can go to real bars there and not talk about movies."

The 6-foot-1 Waters looks trim enough to prompt a television magazine hostess at the yacht to ask him if he works out. Waters laughs, saying he has never been to a gym in his life.

Waters says he treats Cannes as a fancy high school reunion, but he is all business. Every waking minute is booked. A publicist makes the appointments and Waters follows, always gracious and ready with a quote. On the set, he is a pleasant but no-nonsense micro-manager, overseeing everything from lighting to shoelaces, says Pat Moran, his longtime friend and casting director.

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