The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has revealed the details and images of John Waters: Pope of Trash, the first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the eponymous artist’s contributions to cinema, opening on September 17, 2023.
Exploring his process, themes, and unmatched moviemaking approach, the exhibition will trace the grotesque, daring, tacky, hilarious, and salacious elements that recur throughout Waters’s sixty-year career of filmmaking and reveal how his movies have redefined independent cinema. The exhibition is curated by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He and Associate Curator Dara Jaffe. A robust film program complementing the exhibition will begin with a screening of Serial Mom (1994) on September 17 and continue with an extensive retrospective. An adjacent installation highlights other radically independent filmmakers who also champion unconventional modes of film production and distribution.
On view through August 4, 2024, in the museum’s Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, John Waters: Pope of Trash journeys through Waters’s complete filmography, from his do-it-yourself independent beginnings to his rebellious Hollywood productions, including four shorts and twelve feature films. Collaborating closely with Waters—anointed the “Pope of Trash” by author William S. Burroughs—as well as members of his casts and crews, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe selected more than 400 works for the exhibition, many of which have never been displayed publicly. Visitors will enter the exhibition through an introductory gallery featuring an abstract church setting that winks at several aspects of Waters’s personal history and filmmaking. A gallery exploring the filmmaker’s early life and works includes Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964)—Waters’s first film, an 8mm short made when he was 17 years old— as well as Roman Candles (1967), and Eat Your Makeup (1968). Individual feature films—Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977), Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), Cecil B. Demented (2000), and A Dirty Shame (2004)—are explored in depth through works such as handwritten scripts, costumes, props, posters, correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, and film clips. At the center of the exhibition is an experiential gallery highlighting the recurrence of music and dance throughout Waters’s films. The exhibition concludes with a gallery dedicated to Waters’s cult status, featuring fan art and other nods to the filmmaker’s career.
Director and President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Jacqueline Stewart said, “I offer my deep gratitude to John for trusting our museum with the formidable endeavor of telling the story of his vast film career. As the subject of numerous exhibitions on his visual art and photography, John is accustomed to the process of exhibition making. But for John Waters: Pope of Trash, he has uniquely plumbed decades of remembrances and searched high and low—literally attics and basements— for the works seen in the exhibition.”
“Known for pushing the boundaries of ‘good taste,’ Waters has created a canon of high shock-value, high-entertainment movies that have cemented his position as one of the most revered independent auteurs in the history of American movies,” said Academy Museum Exhibitions Curator Jenny He and Associate Curator Dara Jaffe. “Waters’s subversive audacity is matched only by his loving treatment of his characters. His cinematic worlds—consistently set in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland—are absent of mean spirit, which could account for his current phase of respectability, garnered despite decades of gleefully making ‘trash’ films.”
Highlights of never before exhibited objects on view include original handwritten scripts (on legal pads) from early films such as Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos; eyeglasses from Pink Flamingos worn by Mink Stole as Connie Marble, which the Academy Museum has recently acquired and conserved; the electric chair from Female Trouble; Grizelda Brown’s tutu costume from Desperate Living worn by Jean Hill; scratch ’n’ sniff “Odorama” cards used for Polyester ’s theatrical gimmick; the exploding wig worn by Debbie Harry as Velma Von Tussle and Tracy Turnblad’s roach dress worn by Ricki Lake in Hairspray; Cry-Baby’s guitar and leather jackets worn by Johnny Depp and Jonathan Benya as Cry-Baby and Snare-Drum, respectively; the prop lamb leg weaponized by Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) in Serial Mom;the camera used by the eponymous character played by Edward Furlong in Pecker; the skeleton costume worn by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Raven in Cecil B. Demented; and a gas can prop used by Johnny Knoxville’s Ray Ray in A Dirty Shame.
Objects on view are from Waters’s personal collection; the John Waters Archive housed in the Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives at the Jeanine Basinger Center for Film Studies at Wesleyan University; the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library; the Academy Film Archive; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University; and the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries . Private lenders, among them Waters’s cast, crew, and supporters, include Bob Adams, Jonathan Benya, Noah Brodie and Divine Official Enterprises, David Davenport, Tony Gardner, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, Traci Lords, Gene Mendez, Pat Moran and Charles K. Yeaton, Deborah Rausch, Scott Rutherford, Ted Sarandos, Emily Sienicki, Mink Stole, Rachel Talalay, and Brook H. Yeaton.
John Waters: Pope of Trash will be accompanied by a retrospective film screening series from September 17 to October 28, 2023, programmed by Interim Director of Film Programs K.J. Relth-Miller. Kicking off on the exhibition’s opening day, September 17, the museum will present an ultra-rare silent screening of Eat Your Makeup (1968) with simultaneous live commentary from Waters at 3pm, as well as a 35mm screening of Serial Mom (1994), preceded by a conversation with Waters and Peaches Christ at 7:30pm. Additionally, fans will have the opportunity to meet the filmmaker at a book signing of the exhibition catalogue. For more information on these programs and more, visit the Academy Museum website.
John Waters: Pope of Trash is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 256-page catalogue co-published by the Academy Museum and DelMonico Books. Edited with text by curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, the book includes a foreword by Academy Museum Director and President Jacqueline Stewart; essays by film historian Jeanine Basinger, film critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich, and producer David Simon; and a new interview with Waters featuring questions by Sean Baker, Debbie Harry, Barry Jenkins, Johnny Knoxville, Bruce LaBruce, Ricki Lake, Orville Peck, Iggy Pop, Cindy Sherman, Kathleen Turner, Christine Vachon, and Edgar Wright. John Waters: Pope of Trash is available now for presale at the Academy Museum Store.
In addition, the Academy Museum Store will launch an exclusive, first-ever licensed Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Polyester collection in support of the exhibition. The store, which will have a pop-up within the exhibition, will also feature licensed Cry-Baby items as well as merchandise featuring Waters himself. Products will include apparel, ceramics, homeware, and accessories and will feature an exclusive collaboration with Los Angeles-based artist Seth Bogart.
As part of John Waters: Pope of Trash, the museum will present an augmented reality interactive in which visitors can style themselves as John Waters characters. Using a set of selfie face filters, guests will transform themselves into some of Waters’s most iconic characters, including Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray and Divine in Pink Flamingos.
John Waters: Pope of Trash is organized by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He and Associate Curator Dara Jaffe, with the support of Research Assistant Emily Rauber Rodriguez and former Curatorial Assistant Esme Douglas. It will be the museum’s third large-scale temporary exhibition, following Hayao Miyazaki (2021–22) and Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971 (2022-2023).
Adjacent to John Waters: Pope of Trash, in the Warner Bros. Gallery, the Academy Museum presents Outside the Mainstream , an installation that pays homage to the work of other radically independent filmmakers—such as Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Gregg Araki, and Todd Haynes—who operate beyond the pale of mainstream cinema. The gallery focuses on examples from the American avant-garde, underground film, and New Queer Cinema movements, united by the way in which forward-thinking film journalists including Jonas Mekas and B. Ruby Rich supported their reach.
Outside the Mainstream is organized by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He, with the support of Curatorial Assistant Manouchka Kelly Labouba.
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Image credits include: John Waters, Photo by Greg Gorman; Photo of Jean Hill as Grizelda Brown, Desperate Living (1977), Photo by Bob Adams, Courtesy Bob Adams; Clapperboard, Serial Mom (1994), Photo by Owen Kolasinski/©Academy Museum Foundation