John Waters returns to his ‘Dirty’ roots

Times Staff Writer

With “A Dirty Shame,” John Waters has found in Fine Line Features a distributor that will release a movie with an NC-17 rating, and it’s about time. The subversive Waters has maneuvered around R ratings fairly well, but longtime admirers will be grateful that he has returned to the no-holds-barred approach of “Pink Flamingos” and his other Baltimore low-life classics.

This time Waters zeroes in on Baltimore’s suburban Hartford Road blue-collar neighborhood, where the Stickles family is beset by scandal. Drab, repressed Sylvia (Tracey Ullman) and her husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), work at the Pinewood Park and Pay, a Hartford Road convenience store owned by Sylvia’s battle-ax mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd).

Sylvia and Vaughn’s daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), whose enormously enhanced bosom has increased proportionately to her popularity as an exotic dancer, has been found guilty of three “nude and disorderly” violations and sentenced to house arrest. This turn of events has not improved Sylvia’s disposition, made infinitely worse by her running out of gas one morning on busy Hartford Road. This leads to a freak accident that leaves Sylvia with a concussion but with a rescuer, auto mechanic Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville) who when he offers full service means it. He also tells Sylvia that her concussion has turned her into a sex addict. In an instant glum, grumpy Sylvia has turned into a raving nymphomaniac, and Ullman’s formidable comic gifts make Sylvia’s predicament seem outrageously funny.

Through Ray-Ray and his followers Waters shows that Hartford Road is loaded with sex addicts, most of whom are caught up in fetishes. But whereas most of their activities are sub rosa, the antics of Caprice and the advent of gays and lesbians moving into the neighborhood prompt Big Ethel to lead a rally of her “neuter” neighbors to protest a takeover by “perverts.” On opposite sides of the looming battle are Waters regulars Mink Stole as a daffy “neuter” and Patty Hearst as a glamorous sex addict. Other Waters veterans appearing briefly include Mary Vivian Pearce and Ricki Lake.


A gross-out pioneer, Waters has always had more on his mind than delirious, sex-crazed silliness. By allowing people to speak freely about their sexual urges and practices with a bluntness that is jaw-droppingly hilarious, Waters has drawn deeply upon comedy’s liberating power. The more the sex addicts talk about their hang-ups the more comically harmless they seem, and thus it’s all the more absurd for the puritanical to try to punish them for their various pursuits of pleasure.

Waters has always harnessed poor taste to lampoon attempts to limit freedom of expression. This raucously gritty and high-spirited film could scarcely be bluer in terms of the language, but from Waters it comes as a gust of fresh air.


‘A Dirty Shame’

MPAA rating: NC-17 for pervasive sexual content

Times guidelines: Definitely adult fare, but the sex is more talk than action.

Tracey Ullman...Sylvia Stickles

Johnny Knoxville...Ray-Ray Perkins


Selma Blair...Caprice Stickles

Chris Isaak...Vaughn Stickles

Suzanne Shepherd...Big Ethel

A Fine Line Features presentation of a This Is That/Killer Films/John Wells production in association with City Lights Pictures. Writer-director John Waters. Producers Christine Vachon, Ted Hope. Executive producers Mark Ordesky, Mark Kaufman, Meredith Finn, John Wells, the Fisher Brothers. Cinematographer Steve Gainer. Editor Jeffrey Wolf. Music supervisor Tracy McKnight. Costumes Van Smith. Production designer Vincent Peranio. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.


At selected theaters.