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"Hairspray" director John Waters says "The Wizard of Oz" features a very American subject matter, with friends helping one another and fraud being exposed.
TODAY contributor
updated 1/10/2011 3:41:28 PM ET 2011-01-10T20:41:28

Many film directors can point to a single movie that inspired them to want to sit in the director's chair. TODAYshow.com contributor Robert K. Elder has published a new book, "The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark" (Chicago Review Press), in which filmmakers open up about the one movie-going experience that set them on a Hollywood path. In this excerpt from Elder’s book, "Hairspray" director John Waters champions a film that's also a favorite of many regular movie lovers worldwide — "The Wizard of Oz."

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Villainy, great dialogue
It pops up in at least three of his films and accounts for the only time Waters found himself in drag (as a child, at a birthday party). At first when Waters told me he wanted to talk about "The Wizard of Oz," I was skeptical—this was the filmmaker William Burroughs christened “the Prince of Puke” for extreme comedies such as "Pink Flamingos" and "Mondo Trasho."

But as we talked, Waters’s affection for "The Wizard of Oz" seemed to fit right in with his misfit-with-a-camera image.

Q: How would you describe "The Wizard of Oz" to someone who has never seen it?

Waters: Girl leaves drab farm, becomes a fag hag, meets gay lions and men that don’t try to molest her, and meets a witch, kills her. And unfortunately — by a surreal act of shoe fetishism — clicks her shoes together and is back to where she belongs. It has an unhappy ending.

Q: Do you remember how old you were and where you saw it?

Waters: I probably saw it at the Senator Theater in Baltimore the first time, (where) I still have my movie premieres. I don’t remember how old I was, and it wasn’t the first movie I saw, but it was close to it. It was a complete, complete obsession from the very, very beginning.

Now, today, you have video. We couldn’t do that, so you had to wait once a year to see it. That’s that sadness about the magic of movies: you can watch it over and over, and you can rewind it, see how everything is done. Still, is there a better tornado scene? To me, all these really expensive digital effects are very uninvolving. That tornado scene is as good as Twister to me, and I think it’s done with a nylon stocking.

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Q: Why do you think it’s become associated with the gay community, as being a “gay classic”?

Waters: See, to me, I don’t think it’s that much of a gay movie. Judy Garland is (a gay icon) but I don’t think so much of that movie. Of course, this is her first one, but she wasn’t tragic in that movie, except later they found out she was on diet pills when she was singing.

I think it’s only a gay movie, if it is, only because of Judy Garland’s later suffering in her life and melodrama. I love Judy Garland, but did she ever marry a straight man? I don’t know. Did anyone in the family? It’s a tradition.

Q: I read that once, as a kid, you dressed up like the Wicked Witch at a party.

Waters: The only time I’ve ever been in drag in my entire life was once, at a children’s birthday party. I was a witch. I’m sure a few eyebrows were raised, but not really. And once was enough. It ended my drag career. [laughing]

Chicago Review Press
I was always looking for something that other people didn’t like, or people were frightened of, or didn’t care for. I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. "The Wizard of Oz" opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.

Q: It’s always held up as one of the quintessential American films. Why?

Waters: Because it takes place in LSD Land!

Maybe it’s because—and what I do believe—in America, anything can happen. The great freedom of living in America, compared to many other countries—maybe this could happen; you could be home one day and be really just transported to another world, learn everything, and come back.

To me, it is American because of the values with friends, and how people save each other and expose fraud—the person behind the curtain is really bullshit that has no power. All those are very American subject matter…

Q: Tell me about a favorite scene.

Waters: When they throw the water on the witch, she says, “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”

That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep, like a prayer.

It really scares most kids. If it scared me, I loved it. And it made me appreciate villains in films. I never met her, Margaret Hamilton. But she did, before she died, send me an autographed picture. And my favorite thing that’s made me obsessed to this day is she signed it, “Margaret Hamilton,” but then “WWW” for Wicked Witch of the West. It was like her monogram. What a great, great thing to have all through your house. Those three letters were so amazing to me.

But she led to my whole belief, in all my movies that I made, that basically my heroes and heroines are sometimes the villains in other people’s movies. Everything was backwards: The fat girl gets the guy ["Hairspray"]; the good killer is "Serial Mom." It’s always the reverse character in other people’s movies that are heroes. I realized that I was never going to be like the other kids, that I wasn’t going to fit in, but it didn’t bother me. It was a secret society to know that the villains were just much more fun.

For more information on "The Film That Changed My Life," visit the official filmchangedmylife.com site or buy it on Amazon here.

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