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Here’s how John Waters and Drag Icon Divine changed pop culture forever


More than 50 years after his first feature film, John Waters remains one of queer cinema’s most prolific visionaries. The filmmaker blended dark humor and camp aesthetic to forge a singular and provocative style that, for a generation of moviegoers, defined his hometown of Baltimore.

Despite Waters’ avant-garde roots, his influence is still felt in pop culture. In honor of LGBTQ pride month, reporter from Seattle Matt Baumé breaks down three early films that Waters himself dubbed the “trash trilogy” – “Pink Flamingos” from 1972, “Female Trouble” from 1974 and “Desperate Living” from 1977.

Two of these amateur films, “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble”, are best known for featuring indelible performances from the dating icon Divine. Proclaimed by the people as the ‘drag queen of the century’, the actor was Waters’ longtime muse. Their collaboration reached its creative peak with 1988’s “Hairspray”, which was well received by critics and became a cult classic.

Watch Matt Baume’s take on John Waters and Divine below.

Divine died of a heart attack just three weeks after the release of “Hairspray”, never having witnessed the film’s success. As Baume explains, however, the actor’s legacy continues in later versions of the film and beyond.

“Hairspray” was reimagined as a Broadway musical in 2002, starring Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, the role created by Divine in the film. The musical was adapted as a 2007 film starring John Travolta as Edna. And in 2016, NBC aired a live production with Fierstein reprising his Tony award-winning Broadway performance.

Divine was also recognized as the inspiration for the Sea Witch Ursula in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. The film’s lyricist Howard Ashman was a fan of the Waters films and reportedly suggested Ursula’s divine face to studio hosts and actor Pat Carroll, who voiced the character. It’s likely that Melissa McCarthy will also be referring to this larger-than-life model when she stars as Ursula in Disney’s upcoming live-action reboot of the animated classic.


John Springer Collection via Getty Images

Divine (center) in John Waters’ 1974 film “Female Trouble”.

Baume, author of the 2015 book, “Defining Marriage,” said he believed Waters and Divine’s impact on family entertainment – though seemingly at odds with their subversive legacies – stems from a “shared vision. of a world where honesty is valued above all else. ”

“The Waters films have an improbable morality hidden beneath all of the sex and cannibalism,” Baume said. “Real heroes are those who are not ashamed to be themselves. Strange as it sounds, the word I keep coming back to when trying to describe his films is “healthy”.

He added: “Who would have guessed that the road to such enjoyable entertainment could have come from a bunch of home movies so trashy, shady and weird that the crew were pulled over in the middle of filming one of them. them?”

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