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John Waters: Pope of Trash Opens at Academy Museum

Enter the church of "John Waters: Pope of Trash" at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles to worship trash and a man who cheerfully rebelled against so many things. The exhibit, the first of its kind devoted solely to Waters' cinematic career opened on Friday, and Waters was an amiable presence at the press preview panel last Wednesday.

Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, noted the exhibition "celebrates the cinematic legacy of one of the most revered and rebellious auteurs." American writer and visual artist William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) anointed Waters "Pope of Trash" in the 1980s and the exhibit is a classy and clean celebration of trash including the trailer park kind.

The exhibit, curated by Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, was four years in the making. According to He, they asked themselves, "How do we tell the story of John Waters' filmmaking career?" Wanting to tell the story from the perspective of audiences, they identified three groups: devoted fans, people who might be familiar with a film or two and those who might not know Waters at all, despite what Waters' calls "fame maintenance" cameos on TV (such as "The Simpsons") and movies.

During the panel discussion Waters noted, "I have no bitter Hollywood stories. Hollywood treated me fairly."

The exhibition begins with what He describes as "a dramatic entrance gallery which is basically a movie theater in an abstracted church setting because John premiered his early films, from 'Roman Candles' to 'Multiple Maniacs' in churches." The 1966 short, "Roman Candles" features Divine and Mink Stole in random disjointed scenes. The 1970 "Multiple Maniacs" stars Divine as Lady Divine, the owner and operator of a free exhibit, "The Cavalcade of Perversion," which has various fetish acts, but nothing is really free. Lady Divine, who lives in a trailer, first robs her customers and later decides to add murder to the menu.

The church of the Pope of Trash includes a portrait and faux stained-glass windows of memorable characters from John Waters' works. From there, you can view posters and artifacts but also a small trailer to remind fans of "Pink Flamingo" where you can watch videos.

Johnny Depp fans can see the leather jackets from the musical "Cry Baby," and, in the interlude gallery between that and the cheery yellow room of "Hairspray" costumes, you can even dance and appear on three TV screens to segments from "Cry Baby" and "Hairspray." In the "Hairspray" room, you'll see the infamous pale pink cockroach dress.

"Serial Mom" and a "Cecil B. Demented" are both given special sections. For people who love clothes, there's a fuchsia pink lit costume gallery. As the exhibit ends, you'll also see the segment from the 1997 "The Simpsons" episode "Homer's Phobia," as well as art from fans. Like the previous exhibit, "Regeneration: Black Cinema (1898-1971)" which was the Academy Museum's first traveling exhibit and will open at the Detroit Institute of Arts next year (February 4th - June 23rd, 2024), "John Waters: Pope of Trash" is about representation, but there's a tremendous sense of joy in both.

Waters is hoping that people take away "a sense of humor that knows that we never make our enemies feel stupid. We make them feel smart even when they are and get them to laugh and then we can get them to listen."

"John Waters: Pope of Trash" continues at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles) until August 4th, 2024. The exhibit also has a hard cover catalogue ($59.95), a free app to style yourself as John Waters or a character from his films, and a film series that runs until October 28th, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit the website

"John Waters: Pope of Trash" film series schedule is as follows:

Sept. 17 (Sunday): 

3 p.m., "Eat Your Makeup" with live commentary by John Waters

7:30 p.m. "Serial Mom" with John Waters, Peaches Christ in attendance

Sept. 21 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Multiple Maniacs"

Sept. 23 (Saturday): 7:30 p.m., "Pink Flamingos"

Sept. 28 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Hairspray"

Oct. 20 (Friday): 7:30 p.m., "Desperate Living" 

Oct. 26 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Pecker" with "Cry-Baby"

Oct. 28 (Saturday): 7:30 p.m., "Cecil B. Demented" with "A Dirty Shame"

For tickets for the film program, visit

All photos credited to Jana Monji.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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