Academy Museum Presents John Waters: Pope of Trash

Costumes from Polyester. John Waters: Pope of Trash at the Academy Museum. Photo by Elise Thompson.

On September 17, The Academy Museum opened a first-of-its-kind exhibition honoring the films of underground filmmaker, author, art collector and iconoclast, John Waters. “Pope of Trash” runs through August 4, 2024. The ultimate outsider probably never expected to be honored by the Academy, which is about as insider as it gets, and right before he received the unrelated but well-deserved honor of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Waters wanted a shocking beginning, so in keeping with the theme, “The Pope of Trash,” (a sobriquet conferred by William S. Burroughs), you enter the exhibit through a church, with stained glass windows depicting his greatest stars, including David Lochery, Mink Stole, and naturally, Divine, while some of the most quotable clips from his films play on a screen that substitutes for an altar. As an ode to one of his favorite filmmakers, William Castle, two of the benches are equipped with “The Tinger,” and give you mild to more surprising “shocks” if you sit there long enough.

Associate curator Dara Jaf explained to Indie Wire, “Something that unlocked something really major for us was when we first showed John the space where the exhibition would be,” Jaffe said. “At that time, it was our Miyazaki exhibition. And when we first walked into the entrance of that show, John said, ‘When this is my exhibition, they’ve got to walk into a huge shock here. They’ve got to open that door and be greeted with such a shock.’ And he said, ‘We can’t really electrically shock them, can we?’ And the answer is, no, we cannot.”

We were hosted at a preview of the exhibit, which encompasses the entire 4th floor, and it not only met our expectations, it blew them out of the water! There was a wide selection of props, from Waters’ earliest to latest films, including the actual electric chair from Female Troubles! The costumes are fantastic, and the mannequins were so well created you could tell which character wore the outfit just by the pose.

Other notable props include the shoe paintings from Polyester, as well as the Fishpaws’ personalized name plate, complete with an unnecessary apostrophe (The Fishpaw’s). There are behind-the scenes notes, drawings, and handwritten script pages. There is even a life-size model of the Pink Flamingos trailer, created in-house by the museum. Of course, The Academy Museum would have access to the very best set designers. I can’t think of anything I would have liked to have seen that wasn’t there, except perhaps Waters himself, and that was simply due to my timing as he did talks on Thursday and Sunday.

The rooms are categorized by each film, as well as a section dedicated to his career, his stars and collaborators, posters and ads, cameos from film and television, including the actual doll from Seed of Chucky, and even some awesome fan art. One of the more touching displays includes Divine’s bronzed baby shoes. and his birth certificate as Harris Glenn Milstead.

It is a celebration of film, after all, and there is a screen showing some of his early works, including The Diane Linkletter Story, and a room showing dance scenes with a big dance floor for you to join in. The adjacent Warner Bros. gallery features Outside the Mainstream, an installation that contextualizes Waters’s films within contemporary and subsequent film movements.

The curators, Jenny He and Dara Jaffe (with support from Research Assistant Emily Rauber Rodriguez and former Curatorial Assistant Esme Douglas) did an amazing job both with the selection and display of exhibits (400 objects representing Waters’ ouvre), but the creative editing together of some of the films. The gift shop offerings are as one would expect, fantastic, with John Waters Christmas ornaments, T-shirts, bags, and even a self-referencing trash can. The 250-page hardcover catalog is not just a collection of photographs of each exhibit with dry descriptions, it includes essays by Waters, an interview, and additional essays from curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, Jeanine Basinger, David Simon and B. Ruby Rich, as well as big glossy photos of select displays and movie scenes.

John Waters: Pope of Trash is an absolute must-see for fans from the casual to the rabid.

You can also enjoy the accompanying film screenings of the films of John Waters.

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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