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John Waters talks about 'Hairspray,' his biggest — and most unexpected — hit

John Waters talks about 'Hairspray,' his biggest — and most unexpected — hit
Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick, left, Debbie Harry, Divine and Ricki Lake in a scene from the movie "Hairspray." (AMPAS)

As a teenager in the early 1960s, filmmaker John Waters was obsessed with watching “The Buddy Deane Show,” Baltimore’s version of “American Bandstand,” complete with teen dancers and hot groups lip-syncing their hits.

“I watched it every day, and it was on twice,” said the gregarious and often outrageous director of such X-rated cult faves as 1972’s “Pink Flamingos” and 1977’s “Desperate Living.”

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“I went on it with Mary Vivian Pearce, who was in all my movies, when we were in high school. We got thrown off for doing the Booty Green, the one dance you couldn’t do on ‘Buddy Deane,’ which was like the dirty boogie dancing. And I even won a twist contest with Mary Lou Raines [from the show] at a hop.”

He is still friends with Raines and attends the yearly reunions of the dancers.

“Everybody talks, and they play records,” said Waters, 72. “They’re now 70 years old, doing the Waddle — without irony. They do it really well.”

Waters wrote about his love for “The Buddy Deane Show” in his 1985 short story “Ladies and Gentlemen… The Nicest Kids in Town!,” which appeared in his book “Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters.”

Waters, who relished shocking audiences — star Divine ate dog feces at the end of “Pink Flamingos,” for one — flabbergasted everyone when he transformed his short story into the sweet 1988 PG-rated musical comedy “Hairspray.”

On Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the beloved film at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. (The event is sold out, but there will be a stand-by line). Waters some of the movie’s cast, including Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Pia Zadora and Debbie Harry, will be on hand. Barry Jenkins, director and cowriter of the 2017 best picture winner “Moonlight,” is the host.

Admits Waters: “I never thought 30 years later, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be having a screening of ‘Hairspray.’”

“John and I were talking on the phone yesterday, and we were both just going, ‘We’re gobsmacked,”’ added Stole, who has appeared in all of Waters’ films.

Like Waters, whom she’s known since she was 18, Stole was obsessed with “The Buddy Deane Show.” “I used to watch it all the time,” she said. “When I was 12, 13, I would come home, tie a scarf to a door handle and dance by myself, watching the show.”

Set in 1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray” revolves around Tracy Turnblad (Lake) a chubby teenager who loves to do the Madison, the Mashed Potato and the Twist and who wins a dance competition on “The Corny Collins Show.” Not only does Tracy become a regular on the popular weekday series but she also wins the heart of handsome dancer Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard), much to the chagrin of the spoiled teen drama queen on the dance show, Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). And it’s not long long before Tracy uses her newfound celebrity to fight segregation on “Corny Collins.”

Divine, in his last film role, plays Tracy’s loving mother, Edna, who spends her days ironing clothes for neighbors, as well as the racist owner of the TV station; Jerry Stiller is Tracy’s loving father, Wilbur, who owns a joke shop; Zadora and Ric Ocasek are beatniks; Sonny Bono and Harry are Amber’s ruthless parents; and Stole plays Tammy, Corny’s assistant. Deane actually appears as a TV news journalist, a young Josh Charles pops up as a regular on “The Corny Collins Show” and Waters play a bizarre shrink who desperately needs his own shrink.

Waters jokes that “Hairspray” is the “gift that keeps on giving” because it became the basis for the Tony Award-winning 2002 Broadway musical, a 2007 film version of the Broadway show and a live NBC broadcast in 2016 of the musical.

The filmmaker admitted he had a hard time finding his Tracy, because heavyset actresses shied away when they read that casting directors were looking for an “ample” teenage girl for the role.

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“When we cast ‘Hairspray, almost none came,” said Waters. “Thank God, one of them was Ricki Lake. But Ricki would have gotten the part even if thousands of them showed up.”

When Lake was cast, she had no idea who Waters or Divine was.

“When I met Divine, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Lake, 49. “He really didn’t like me at first, because he wanted to play my part. He wanted to play both the mother and the daughter like he did in ‘Female Trouble.’”

But Lake and Divine became good friends — he even demonstrated to the ingenue how to walk in heels. Because Divine tipped the scales at 300 pounds, Waters noted that his heels had to be made of steel. “Divine’s heels always cracked under his weight.”

But the success of the film is definitely bittersweet.

“Hairspray” opened in theaters on Feb. 26, 1988, and Divine died on March 7, at age 42. “He was so young,” said Lake. “It was really just unexpected, and I don’t think, in a lot of ways, the people who were close to Divine ever got over it. I think John never got over that loss.”

Waters noted that the film was doing well at the box office until Divine’s death. “I hate to say it, but sudden death is not a good move or business for a comedy,” he said. “We had just done a tour all over the country. So, basically, [newscasts] cut from the news of me and Divine giving interviews at the premiere to me carrying the coffin. That doesn’t make you run to the movie. “

But at least Divine knew critics loved his performance. “Pauline Kael gave him a good review,” said Waters. “He got a good review in the New York Times. All this he did know. It was better than dying a week before [the reviews]. It’s tragic, you know?’’

Stole relished that she played one of the good guys in “Hairspray.”

“I was always the bad guy and almost invariably got killed,” she said. “This was the first time I was one of the good guys and nobody killed me.”

And she didn’t have to destroy her hair.

“I was asked to set my hair on fire in ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but it never happened,” said Stole. “I have bleached it. I dyed it black. I tortured my hair. In ‘Hairspray,’ I’m in a wig.”

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Because she rehearsed and danced so much in the movie, Lake began to lose weight. Because of continuity issues, she couldn’t just appear weighing 30 pounds less, Waters said, adding that “we would give her Dove bars between takes.”

“Tracy became the poster child for anyone who felt like an outcast, who didn’t fit in,” said Lake. “I mean, she’s a superhero for so many young girls. I love that her spirit and the character has lived on.”

Though “The Corny Collins Show” is integrated at the end of “Hairspray,” that didn’t happen with “The Buddy Deane Show.”

“In real life, ‘The Buddy Deane Show’ went off the air because they couldn’t integrate,” said Waters. “It was like ’63 or ’64. At the height of it, it was on Mondays to Saturdays. All the kids were giant stars. Every person but Elvis appeared on that show. I gave it the happy ending that did not happen.”

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‘Hairspray’

When: 7:30 p.m. July 23. Note: The film is sold out, but stand-by numbers will be given out starting at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

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