Artist and Filmmaker John Waters Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Retrospective

portrait of John Waters | photo by Greg Gorman, © Academy Museum Foundation

The underground Artist and Filmmaker John Waters first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to his contributions to cinema, is taking place at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in LA.  John Waters: Pope of Trash, explores his process, themes, and unmatched movie making approach. The exhibition traces the grotesque, daring, deliberately tacky, hilarious, and salacious elements that recur throughout Waters’ sixty-year filmmaking career and reveals how his movies have redefined independent cinema.

A robust film program complementing the exhibition began with an ultra-rare silent screening of Eat Your Makeup (1968) on Sept. 17 and continued with an extensive retrospective. An adjacent installation, Outside the Mainstream, highlights other radically independent filmmakers who also champion unconventional film production and distribution modes.

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 is the museum’s third large-scale temporary exhibition, following Hayao Miyazaki (2021–22) and Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971 (2022–23) in its 11,000-square-foot Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery.

On view through Aug. 4, 2024, 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— and members of his casts and crews, the co-curators selected more than 400 works for the exhibition, many of which have never been displayed publicly.

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 endeavour of telling the story of his vast film career. As the subject of numerous exhibitions of his visual art and photography, John is accustomed to the exhibition-making process. 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 in this 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.”

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/ © Academy Museum Foundation.


Visitors enter the exhibition through an introductory gallery featuring an abstracted chapel 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—and Roman Candles (1967). These films, in addition to Eat Your Makeup (1968), Mondo Trasho (1969) and The Diane Linkletter Story (1970), have been restored by the Academy Film Archive for the exhibition with film materials on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for the latter three.

Individual feature films—Mondo Trasho, 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, set decoration, costumes, props, production design, posters, correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, and film clips. At the centre 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.

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 titular 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 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 Vincent Peranio Archive housed in 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.

As part of John Waters: Pope of Trash, the museum presents an interactive augmented reality experience where visitors can style themselves as John Waters or a character from his films. Using a set of selfie face filters, guests can transform themselves into some of Waters’s most iconic characters, including Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray and Divine (living under the alias of Babs Johnson) in Pink Flamingos. Access the filters here.


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. Drawing from a vast list of non-conformists, this exhibition focuses on American avant-garde, underground film, and New Queer Cinema examples. Forward-thinking film journalists, including Jonas Mekas and B. Ruby Rich, supported these movements. Outside the Mainstream is organized by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He, with the support of Curatorial Assistant Manouchka Kelly Labouba.


John Waters: Pope of Trash is accompanied by a retrospective film screening series until Oct. 28, 2023, programmed by Interim Director of Film Programs K.J. Relth-Miller. Kicking off on the exhibition’s opening day, the museum presented a sold-out, ultra-rare silent screening of Waters’s third film, Eat Your Makeup (1968), about women who are forced to model to the point of death, with simultaneous live commentary from Waters at 3 pm. This rarely screened short, which first premiered in Baltimore’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church in 1968, was shot on 16mm with a Bell & Howell camera on view in the exhibition and was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive.

Additional screenings include Female Trouble (Sept. 28), Polyester (Sept. 29), Hairspray (Oct. 5), Desperate Living (Oct. 20), double feature screenings of Pecker and Cry-Baby (Oct. 26), and double feature screenings of Cecil B. Demented with A Dirty Shame (Oct. 28).

Top Photo: John Waters | photo by Greg Gorman, © Academy Museum Foundation

John Waters: Pope of Trash Academy Museum of Motion Pictures September 17th, 2023 – October 28th, 2023

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