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Review: John Waters' 'Role Models' shows inspiration without judgment

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.

Waters' audiences probably didn't expect that the auteur of low-budget shock comedies such as Desperate Living and Pink Flamingos would 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, she used to dread talking about the role that won her an Academy Award nomination at 11. Waters describes his love for the difficult novels of Denton Welch and Lionel Shriver, and the deconstructed, confrontational art of his "roommates" Mike Kelley, Cy Twombly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss. 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 observe the trials, and he later struck up a genuine closeness with Leslie Van Houten. 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."

That's his true inspiration. Though some of his subjects have found themselves in financial ruin and chemically dependent, he doesn't pronounce judgment on where their decisions have taken them. In Waters' world, authenticity is more important than a fully funded 401(k).

Role Models

By John Waters

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25

Review: John Waters' 'Role Models' shows inspiration without judgment 06/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 5:30am]
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