Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 9, 2010
Role Modelsby John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $25
In this collection of prose portraits of some of his cultural heroes, legendary filmmaker John Waters regularly reveals more about himself than his subjects. This is by design. Who else but this original tastemaker would offer us role models as diverse as singers Johnny Mathis and Little Richard, writers Tennessee Williams and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Commes des Garçons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, a lesbian stripper from Baltimore named Lady Zorro, outsider gay pornographers Bobby Garcia and David Hurles, zealots Saint Catherine of Siena and atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and, in the book's most serious chapter, ex-Charlie Manson girl and friend Leslie Van Houten, who is now in her fourth decade of life imprisonment?
As the once-shocking Waters and his trash aesthetic are increasingly integrated into present-day popular culture, it becomes an ever-greater challenge for the maestro to retain his outsider status. Thus, this book helps define the influences that have made Waters the artist and trendsetter he is. Role Models offers glimpses of the young Baltimore boy learning how to cultivate his outsider interests. We discover how stealing a Tennessee Williams book as a teen "saved" his life, how dressing in thrift-shop clothing can be raised to an art form, and how frequenting the gay bars of Baltimore can become a study in sociology. From later in his life we learn the genesis of his pencil mustache (Little Richard) and the details of its maintenance, the artwork hanging on the walls of his various abodes (in an atypically contrived chapter titled "Roommates"), and his later regret for having used the Manson murders in his early films in a "jokey, smart-ass way."
Yet for all the incidental stuff we learn about Waters, Role Models reveals the author as a gifted portraitist of others. The author is drawn to personalities who experience exaggerated fame or notoriety and whose will to survive frightening success or failure earns his respect. Whether these figures are like O'Hair, the "most hated woman in America," or like Mathis, who confesses to having wanted the career of Miles Davis instead of crooning make-out music, they are all sources of inspiration for Waters.