Film: Steamy nights in Baltimore

The director of Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom has visions of Mary Bell's daughter dancing in his head. He'd like to introduce his dad to gay sex. Yet some things still give John Waters the heebie-jeebies.

One minute into the interview and John Waters is already talking about sex. I've thrown out a general question about the perils of fame. "You can't have bad sex!" he exclaims. "You know, if you have a back-room job or a one-night stand, they go and tell newspapers about it." He grin and swings his neat little foot. He is David-Niven-dapper; he has a shiny briefcase by his side. "Or even worse, you're in the middle of doing it and they say `I love Female Trouble.' I can't have anonymous sex any more! It doesn't work!"

Blimey, I think, this interview's going to be easy. Waters: the 52-year- old ex-Catholic homosexual who put the corn into porn and never used a woman where a transvestite would do. He's floated effortlessly into the mainstream with films such as Hairspray, Cry Baby and Serial Mom, but never lived down (or up) a leading lady gobbling dog poo (1972's Pink Flamingos), or a rape by rosary beads (1971's Multiple Maniacs). All the "bad" stuff you see in his movies is probably all based on his life! This man has no inhibitions! And yet the point of his story is that privacy matters. Hmm...

Water's latest film, Pecker, is also about privacy. Its central character (Edward Furlong) takes photographs that capture the spontaneous truth, but when he becomes famous, it has consequences for his subjects - suddenly they've got nowhere to hide. Waters thinks that's a horrible place to be. "People link me to the Jerry Springer Show, which is wrong. My movies are about people who wouldn't go on Jerry Springer. My subjects," he says with a proud smile (Waters, by the way, has sweet, yellowing teeth), "have always been Baltimore people, and they don't want people looking into their lives."

And yet Waters, as he admits, loves gossip (his nephew recently admitted taking ecstacy - "I didn't tell his mother!" he says gleefully). In the past, he's said: "I like movie stars who like to have their picture taken, not the ones who hide from the press." And his movies ram the point home: in Female Trouble, Dawn Davenport kills to become a celebrity, while in Pink Flamingos, fabulous Babs Johnson murders two people and forces a group of journalists to watch.

Clearly, Waters is in two minds about the value of closeting oneself away. The question is, why? I remind him that, in 1994, I sent him a questionnaire on behalf of another newspaper asking what three things he'd like for Christmas. Top of the list was Mary Bell's address, "so I can send her a Christmas card". Waters has long been obsessed with killers, from Manson to John Wayne Gacy, but Bell - who at this point was very much out of the public eye - clearly stood out for him. No need to ask whether he bought the Gitta Sereny book. Of course he did.

"I don't want to exploit her," Waters says carefully. "I don't even want to exploit her in this article." But he's fascinated by the fact that, until the fuss surrounding Sereny's book, Mary Bell's daughter knew nothing about her mother's identity. His lip grows wet before my eyes. "I do wonder what her daughter said; that's the only thing I haven't read - did she accept it, or freak out?" He snorts. "She was probably, like [he puts on a Divine voice] `Mother! Now I'll never get a boyfriend!', or `That's cool, ma!'. I can hear her," he says dreamily. "If it were in America, she'd have a Valley Girl accent..."

Does he think Bell was right to keep the facts from her daughter? He winces. "I think Mary Bell should have told her; the daughter was old enough." Would he have told? "I guess you'd have to, so they would hear it. Yes, I would." He gives himself a shake. "But then parents have a hard enough time telling you the facts of life, much less..."

Which brings us to Water's own childhood. As he's been cheerfully telling journalists for years, his parents were great ones for repression: "If I came home and said I'd killed 12 people they'd say, `that's nice, wanna see the garden?'" Aha! Could it be that homosexuality was on a par with murder for his respectable Baltimore family? Maybe that's where his problem with secrecy arises. Outing himself (as he did, very early on) must surely have robbed him of a certain degree of privacy, while certainly violating the heads-down Baltimore code. Yet it was presumably also liberating. He let himself be seen so he could be heard.

And, long term, it seems to have worked. His father recently went to see Pecker. "My father had to think about the term `T-bagging'," where one man shoves, or dunks, his scrotum into the face of another. Waters lets out an ecstatic asthmatic laugh. "Daddy had no desire for that to be in his consciousness." But what about the other way round - does Waters ever wonder what his folks got up to in bed? He looks appalled, panic- stricken, and literally crosses his Twiglet legs. "My mother is an Anglophile, she worships Queen Elizabeth. Do people think about the Queen having sex? They don't!" I persist. Maybe she and his dad were sneaky sex-addicts. Waters grins through gritted teeth: "Well, that's good. If they were, they got away with it!"

I'm astonished by this taboo-buster's discomfort. Isn't that the whole point of films like Serial Mom, to show that beneathpristine suburbia lies a hotbed of rage and sex? There's that great scene where Kathleen Turner initiates such noisy sex with her husband that her horrified kids can hear in their bedrooms. It's the kids who end up looking uptight. "Oh no!" he squeals. "It's spooky to hear anyone having sex, even in a hotel room next door; moaning and screaming - it's creepy. No matter how close you are, no one wants to hear that." But that's precisely what people want to hear. That's why, when Waters has "bad" sex, he has to worry about it ending up in the tabloids. That's why we go to the movies. It's called prurience and/or healthy curiosity. But no, suddenly Waters wants to deny such an urge, wants us to respect "privacy" all over again.

You begin to wonder whether this tension surrounding desire hasn't affected his own love life. Handsome, charming, there's something at once childlike and prematurely old about Waters, something a tiny bit sad. He's always asserting his homosexuality ("I'm never coming in - not unless the Virgin Mother pays a visit!"), and yet there's no evidence of partners. It's women he talks about. Waters tells me about his wealthy maternal grandmother (the Catholic one, who'd have the bishop over to the house to say Mass). She was widowed very young (ie she was celibate for most of her life), but the "unspoken thing" about her, Waters believes, was that: "She liked the company of gay men. She used to call them `the fellows'."

Were these relationships enough for her? Waters frowns. "I still think that a gay man and a straight woman can have the closest friendship there is. I do." Is that true for him? "Yes," he says, his face stiff with unease. His best friend's kids, he says, "feel almost like my kids. I would be a terrible father, but I'm a good uncle".

The gay man as uncle. The gay man with a preference for naughty sex, "once in a while, when I'm on the road". It all sounds so lonely, so Catholic, so Baltimore. Is that the real secret about John Waters - that sex and friendship are utterly distinct in his mind? Or is it his pretend secret, one that cleverly allows him to maintain his privacy? If so, then to paraphrase Waters himself: well, that's good - he's got away with it!

`Pecker' opens on 5 Feb

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