Nowadays, Waters is almost respectable. He’s a talk-show regular, a New York Times best-selling author, and a patron of the arts (the toilets of the Baltimore Museum of Art are named after him thanks to a substantial donation of paintings he made from his personal collection.) Films that once infuriated the critical elite are now in the Criterion Collection, and “Pink Flamingos” is listed at number 211 on the most recent Sight and Sound list of the 250 greatest films of all time (it’s ahead of “Star Wars” and “A Clockwork Orange”!). “Hairspray” is also the stuff of the mainstream now, thanks to a wildly successful Broadway musical adaptation, which later became its own film. High schools now perform John Waters jokes, which is a beautiful thing to think about.
Yet all of this happened without John Waters giving up everything that makes him John Waters. The success of “Hairspray” saw him become a part of the decade’s burgeoning indie movie boom, giving him wider releases and bigger budgets. Some critics found titles like “Pecker” and “Cecil B. Demented” to be watered-down Waters, but his work still championed weird outsiders and a total rejection of societal norms. It’s not simply that he dismissed normalcy, however that may be defined, but that he reinvented the notion of good old American family values to fit the kinds of people they were designed to exclude. “Hairspray” is one of his most direct versions of this philosophy, spitting in the eye of rose-tinted nostalgia and widening the vision to make it more inclusive. It’s wholesome in its own weird, bomb-heavy way, and it’s never gone out of style, even as Waters evolved into the cool weird uncle of indie film.