"It's a feel-good-sex-fetish-miracle-religious movie," says director John Waters about his latest eyebrow-raising film. A Dirty Shame, which comes out September 24, stars Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair and Waters's stock company Player Emeritus, Mink Stole. But in truth, like any Waters movie, it's the filmmaker who's the star. And when Waters and his cast (less Tracy Ullman) met with the press recently, the discussion was varied and quotable. "I feel like Henry Cabot Lodge," Waters purrs as he sits down in front of a bank of press microphones. But all the attention begs the question: Can we still be shocked by John Waters?
Rated NC-17, A Dirty Shame is about Slyvia Stickles (Ullman), a mild-mannered, sex averse, Baltimore housewife, who is struck on the head one day and, due to her injury, suddenly goes sex mad. The new world she explores, that of the most bizarre -- and mostly real (!) -- sex fetishes found in The Dictionary of Filth (a real book and Waters's bedside reading), is perfect territory for the man who became famous for creating Pink Flamingoes and Female Trouble. It is not the first of his films that's received an NC-17, but it was still a shock for him and New Line when the MPAA slapped the former "X" rating on his film. "I made the movie I wanted to make," says Waters. "I wouldn't change a thing." But the week the MPAA was passing judgment on his movie, the prison photos from Abu Ghraib prison hit the news and it made the subject of a "sex comedy" seem all the more inappropriate. "Lindsay England is from Maryland," Waters says proudly about the moon-faced Buck Private at the center of the prison sex photo scandal. "Still, I really feel if Bill Clinton were President, we would have gotten an R," Waters claims.
The subject matter may be controversial, but Waters approach was to giddily investigate the world of sex fetishes and the variety of what he found surprised even him. "Look up ‘Bear' on the Internet and you'll be shocked," he dares. And yet for the devilish smile that crooks his pencil thin mustache, he has a message in his movie. "It's all safe sex," says Waters. "In the age of AIDS, normal sex is probably more dangerous than anything in this movie. No one is hurt by this and it exploits no one, I made sure of that." And there is something of a last frontier nature to this exploration of the very furthest ends of the fetish realm. The world of "Bears" and slang phrases like "plate job," "upper decker" and "Roman Showers," were like mining gold for Waters whose attraction to the kitsch and the bizarre in American culture has been documented in his book Crackpot. This then is the tableau against which Waters gets to discuss his main theme. Can tolerance go too far? "I'm really with Big Ethel (a character in the film) I can say: That's wrong!"
As the preacher who saves Sylvia, the charismatic leader of the Sex Addicts, Ray-Ray Perkins, is Jackass star and rising movie actor Johnny Knoxville (who was recently cast in the Dukes of Hazzard). And not surprisingly, Waters was a fan before they met. Knoxville is delighted: "When guys like John Waters and Quentin Tarrantino tell me that Jackass: The Movie has influenced their work, I'm really amazed by that." But it's true. Apparently Tarrantino, in particular, is alleged to have built whole segments of Kill Bill around the mayhem of Knoxville's stunt art. "I am really honored to get to work with John, I've been a fan of his for years," Knoxville says. And when his character in Dirty Shame is compared to Elmer Gantry, Knoxville surprises everyone. "You know the first line in Elmer Gantry. I do. ‘Elmer Gantry was drunk.'" Who knew Knoxville could quote Sinclair Lewis?
And swirling around the oddball romance between Ray-Ray and Sylvia as the latter descends into the seven rings of Dante's hell, aka the sex fetish world of Baltimore, are some hilarious guest appearances. One by actress Selma Blair involves boobs. Big ones. "I think they're size Triple E," says Selma Blair of the gigantic fake breasts that her character, Caprice Stickles, has to sport in the film. And in between takes, Selma liked to shock the Teamsters with them. "By the end of the day, because of the hot lights, the latex melted and they were just sort of sagging there. I don't even think my husband [Dweezil Zappa] had a chance to see them." As to how big they are, Waters had one request: "I just wanted to make sure they were bigger than her head."
Of her long-standing relationship with John Waters, actress Mink Stole is clearly proud to have been a part of his long and legendary career. "I met John when I was 18 and I was in my first John Waters film when I was 19." She's been in every one of his films since. "This is a family," she says. "We've had the same set designer and the same crew in many cases since 1972. John is a cottage industry in Baltimore and the city opens its doors for him whenever he is making a new film. They love him. So do I." Ms. Stole plays the wonderfully named Marge The Neuter in this film. But her greatest joy was being in Waters seminal works. "I think Female Trouble is his masterpiece," she says. "Of the early years I mean." And, in a sense, A Dirty Shame is a return to that age of daring -- fun, but definitely edgier than recent more mainstream films he's made. Those who've seen A Dirty Shame, and like it, say that it draws on the daring of the early years and combines that with the skills Waters has learned from making bigger budget "Hollywood films" like Serial Mom (another Mink Stole fav), Hairspray and Cry-Baby. But mostly it is yet another fun foray into the mind of John Waters, world's oldest teen provocateur.
"I think Johnny Knoxville is great in this," says Waters, then adds a comment that could be said about himself. "I knew he would be a big star when I saw a report about Jackass on 60 Minutes. A kid who'd been hurt trying to copy one of the stunts Johnny did was asked what he'd do if he ever met him. So there's this kid in his hospital bed and he says ‘I'd ask for his autograph!'" Waters is clearly delighted re-telling the story. "That's what you want, something teenagers love and their parents hate!" Waters has been tweaking noses in the same way, delighted to be so daring, meaning no harm, and with a giddy sense of discovery his whole career. And he shows no signs of letting up now.