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On the set of his new film, it's clear John Waters is his outrageous old self


December 07, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Think of John Waters as a racy Wizard of Oz. Generations of American storytellers have chronicled provincial misfits and artists leaving their homes and finding their true colors in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. But Waters does the reverse, attracting international talent to his native Baltimore and convincing them that Charm City and the Emerald City are fully equal.

This fall he did it again while shooting A Dirty Shame. Conceptually, it's a hoot. In the 1979 gang classic The Warriors, Walter Hill pictures a teen-age wild bunch called "the Warriors" and sends them running for their lives through the streets of New York. In A Dirty Shame, Waters imagines rival groups of families and friends from different generations and environments, names them for their clashing erotic mores -- "Sex Addicts" and "Neuters" -- and sends them running up and down and all around Baltimore's Harford Road.

One October night you could have mistaken Waters for the Wizard behind the curtain as he watched Sex Addicts and Neuters converge in a biker bar, the Holiday House (6427 Harford Road). After setting up each shot, he retired to a dark corner of the saloon and sat glued to the video monitoring the action as Selma Blair, best known for playing a Harvard Law School snob in Legally Blonde, kept her balance despite huge prosthetic breasts.

The difference between Waters and the Wizard is that Waters is no humbug. This guy loves to make movies -- and by now he knows how. A Dirty Shame is his attempt to see whether the guerrilla comedy of early no-budget shockers like his Female Trouble can reach exhilarating lows when explored with (he should pardon the phrase) style and craft.

Suzanne Shepherd, familiar to HBO-watchers as Carmela Soprano's mom, plays Blair's grandmother. She's the matriarch of a family-owned convenience store and a leader of the Neuters -- even though her daughter, played by Tracey Ullman, has had a concussion that's turned her into a Sex Addict, and her granddaughter, Blair, is a Sex Addict icon who goes by the stage name "Ursula Udders."

Shepherd was doing a wonderful job of conveying shock and revulsion at Waters' sex-charged heightening of the Holiday House scene. But when Shepherd first entered with Chris Isaak, who plays her Neuter son-in-law, she pushed the square-jawed singer / actor out of the way. This move propelled Waters from his corner to suggest that an older woman new to a flesh-and-leather milieu might not be so hasty to navigate it alone.

Waters' early films had a giddy amateurishness. Now he cares about actors' beats and timing. In one shot, Shepherd kept missing her second mark, but Waters guided her through it patiently. And Shepherd, an acting teacher at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, loved him for it. "Acting is acting no matter what the context," Shepherd told me later, "and if you act only from the shoulders up, you're not acting, you're just making faces."

Of course, appearing in a Waters film requires more acting than usual from the shoulders down. During a break, Waters admitted that his mother asked whether A Dirty Shame would take the glow off the widespread mainstream infatuation with Hairspray. Waters chuckled and said, "The halo from Hairspray was getting to feel a little tight."

Twelve years passed between Waters' discovery of the Holiday House and his decision to use it as a prime location. He began to go there right after the release of Crybaby. Burned out on doing publicity, he roamed along Harford Road looking for a bar where, unlike Cheers, no one would know his name.

Every person he asked warned him that the Holiday House would be too rough for him -- "they'll kill you in there!" -- so naturally, that's where he went. At first he wandered in alone and found that if you were respectful of the clientele, they'd be respectful of you. Then he started taking friends like Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) and Ricki Lake and, he says, "art people from Europe, who'd never seen a biker bar. Sure, you can see a biker bar in L.A., but it's probably a faux biker bar. This is the real thing."

Waters drolly adds that he told Holiday House regulars that if "trendy people" started showing up once stories like this one broke, "you can beat them up if you want to."

Frank Hughes, the bar's owner, says, "I don't know where the rough reputation comes from. We get a good mix here -- it's a biker bar, but we get a lot of professionals and business types, too -- and any people that have a problem with that, we just ask them to leave."

Hughes admits that when Waters first made his way there, "I didn't know who he was." But by the time Waters got around to telling Hughes he was going to make a picture at his bar, Hughes' response was, "You've been coming here for years. What took you so long?"

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