John Waters Celebrates ‘Hairspray’ at 35: ‘Racists Like It, but They Don’t Realize It’s Making Fun of Them’ | Digital Cover

The filmmaker reflects on the origins and enduring legacy of his 1988 film for TheWrap

John Waters
John Waters (Credit: Jeff Vespa/TheWrap)

Good morning, Baltimore!

In 1988, director John Waters debuted his wacky, irreverent quasi-musical “Hairspray” in theaters. The story of Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), a young Baltimore teen desperate to become a star on the Corny Collins show, went on to gross over $8 million at the box office that year on a $2.7 million budget, garnering six Independent Spirit Award nominations and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It also marked the mainstream explosion of Waters, whose campy spirit connected with audiences at large as “Hairspray” has since become a bona fide fan favorite, with a long-running Broadway show that was also adapted into a true movie musical in 2007.

Waters, who has gone on to make other cult classics including “Serial Mom” and “Polyester,” attributes the film’s success to not talking down to its audience, no matter how misguided they might be. “It’s a political movie without anyone preaching,” Waters told TheWrap for a digital cover story in celebration of not just the 35th anniversary but a retrospective and exhibition of his films at the Academy Museum as well as the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “It’s not ‘woke fat girl goes on a dance show,’ even though that is what it is.”

“I built a career on bad reviews.”

John Waters

The director had no idea the movie would be a success while he was making it. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen with it,” he said. “It felt good… I felt the joy on the set.”

For Waters, the movie works because it kills hatred with kindness or, in this case, laughter. “You want people to agree with you? Make them laugh. They’ll listen.” Even those who might not immediately think a movie about a heavy-set girl with a a drag performer in a lead role is for them have come to celebrate the movie.

“Racists like ‘Hairspray,’” said Waters. “But they’re so stupid they don’t realize it’s making fun of them. That means I won the first round of debates.”

“Hairspray” (CREDIT: Everett Collection)

“Hairspray” was an autobiographical film of sorts for Waters, who based much of it on his own experiences growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s and his time on “The Buddy Deane Show,” a local take on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” As Waters explained it, Deane and WBZ-TV allowed its teenage dance stars to be more outlandish than Dick Clark, with tighter pants and higher hair.

“These kids were huge stars in Baltimore,” he said. “But they got beat up when they went out because they were hated or loved depending on if you were in a working class neighborhood or a fancy neighborhood.”

Waters, who grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood evolving around the Civil Rights Movement, said going downtown exposed to a world that was not accepted. “Around that time Governor [George] Wallace, the racist governor, was running in the primary in Baltimore and I went to the demonstrations,” Waters said. “It was the first time I ever felt civil disobedience… We went downtown to be beatniks, and we met the gay world and we all hung around together.”

“[He] pulled me aside, sat me down and said, ‘I want to tell you your life is about to change,’”

Ricki Lake

Despite the satirical subject matter, Waters remained shocked that the movie only earned a PG rating. He said even the film’s distributor, New Line, was surprised it received such a tame rating considering the use of the word “shit” which tended to elevate movies to PG-13 status. “But it is a movie the whole family should be able to see,” said Waters. “It is a movie that encourages interracial dating, two men sing a love song to each other in it.”

He praises actress Ricki Lake for making her own outsider character, Tracy Turnblad, into an icon for heavier set young girls. As he explained it, it was a challenge trying to find a young woman who was heavy to play the character. That wasn’t a problem when they did a live version of the Broadway show on NBC in 2016. “When it finally was on NBC, four versions later, and they had an open audition, thousands of big girls were in line to audition,” he said. “That’s because Ricki made it great… she was Tracy Turnblad in some ways, completely.”

“I stood for the underdog,” Lake told TheWrap. And while Waters might not have known the film was going to be something special, Lake — who parlayed the film’s success into striking off on her own as an actress, documentarian and talk show host — explained that Waters prepared her for the impact the film would have on everyone. “[He] pulled me aside, sat me down and said, ‘I want to tell you your life is about to change,’” Lake said. “[He said] ‘I want you to remember three things: Always stay humble. Always stay true to yourself. And if you gonna read and believe the good things people say about you, you have to read and believe the bad.’”

That’s because, according to Waters, “I built a career on bad reviews.”

Waters also had to discuss his regular collaborator, Divine, who starred in six of the director’s features. He said he’d initially planned for Divine to play both Tracy and Tracy’s mother, kind of like “The Parent Trap,” but he was overruled.

“Divine, for the first time got great reviews, because he had established himself as this thing that we made up to scare hippies, basically like Godzilla meets Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “Divine was used to being the star and Ricki had the biggest part in it,” though the pair became close friends during filming. Tragically, Divine died in his sleep on March 7, 1988, three weeks after “Hairspray” opened nationwide. He received a posthumous Independent Spirit Award nomination for his dual roles in the film.

Looking back, Waters considers his quirky tale of an outcast looking for acceptance on the dance floor of a local television station the “happiest experience” of his career. “Reliving my childhood,” he said, “was a great moment of my life, and I think the joy of making [“Hairspray”] came through.”

John Waters Digital Cover (Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap)

You can watch TheWrap’s full video interviews above. “John Waters: Pope of Trash” debuts at the Academy Museum September 17.