Somewhere in the great beyond, where no curse is ever uttered nor bloomer ever dropped and, if anybody’s having sexual relations, it’s gotta be hetero, Mary Avara must be killing herself. John Waters is at it again. Mary could have stopped that boy long ago, and now look what he’s gone and done.
He’s written another book. First, it was just those awful movies – the ones where the titles alone drove Mary crazy, like “Eat Your Makeup” and “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs.”
Later, it was the Broadway theater, where Waters turned the ignominy of racial separation on the old Buddy Deane Show into the dancing and singing hilarity of “Hairspray.”
And now this – another book by Waters, this time chronicling his career, including all the goofball days in Baltimore when he and Avara were snarling at each other over every scrap of film Mary tried to razor-cut.
It was Avara who headed the old Maryland Censor Board. Back in the ‘60s, when the rest of the country was unbuttoning its long-repressed libido and watching it mirrored on movie screens, the censor board was snipping “the good stuff” out of films before they ever reached local theaters.
They didn’t understand Waters and his outlaw brand of humor at all. And so Mary went to war with John. And instead of him fading into obscurity as just another low-budget kid scrounging to break into the movie business, their high-profile battles titillated the whole country and helped turn Waters into a national icon.
His new book is called “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.” Don’t be misled, the title’s just a spoof on Water’s bad-boy image. The book’s delightful. It’s funny and it’s show-biz gossipy, and it’s honest even when Waters isn’t the hero of the story. What’s more, to use a word John would hate, it’s heartwarming, too.
Because behind the most bizarre instincts of even the earliest and most grotesque early Waters movies, there was the misunderstood misfit sensibility of a man who was championing life’s underdogs.
That’s always been the underlying theme of Waters’ works. The outsiders in American culture – the odd ones, the homely ones, the misfits, the left-out and the lonely — became, in Waters’ telling, the heroes of the piece.
He’s been teaching us to whistle past the graveyards of our anxieties and our Puritan inhibitions. If we laughed hard enough, we wouldn’t have to feel haunted.
That’s what the Maryland Censor Board never understood. They’d sit there in their darkened little viewing room, erasing all the “good stuff” from every movie that hit Baltimore.
And then Mary Avara would come charging out of the room, declaring, “They’re doing things on that screen that I wouldn’t do in my bedroom.”
“Like what?” she was asked one day.
“Like that filth,” she replied, emerging from a showing of “Goodbye, Columbus,” where she had just snipped all frames that showed Ali MacGraw’s tush.
Now that was an artistic tragedy. It took several decades before that movie showed up on late-night cable and we got to see what real art looks like.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.