YOU might not guess it from his new film, ``Cry-Baby,'' but director John Waters was known for years as the most outrageous raunch-master of American movies. In pictures like ``Female Trouble'' and ``Desperate Living'' he teased, tweaked, provoked, and cheerfully grossed out his audience - which, consisting largely of young people as rebellious as he was, thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Then the unexpected happened: Mr. Waters grew up. Not all the way, he's the first to agree, but enough to broaden his audience and find entertainment value in stories that have more than down-and-dirty humor to offer.
``Everyone was shocked when `Hairspray' got a PG,'' Waters told me the other day, referring to his last picture and its unexpectedly mild rating. ``I was shocked,'' he added with a grin. But he's quick to admit that ``Hairspray'' consolidated a ``new chapter'' in a career that had started with ``Polyester'' in 1981 - a film with a gimmick called Odorama, which equipped the audience with scratch-and-sniff cards to be waved under the nostrils at strategic moments.
What characterized ``Hairspray'' was not only its general lack of lowdown humor, but the ``social redeeming value'' of its story about freewheeling teens bringing racial integration to Baltimore, the filmmaker's home town. Waters is proud of ``Hairspray,'' but he's also mischievous enough to confound easy interpretations of its place in his career. ``It's not a socially redeeming movie,'' he says in his light Baltimore accent. ``It's a joke on socially redeeming movies.'' Explaining this, he notes that ``it wasn't exactly courageous'' to argue for integration in 1988. Still, the picture brought Waters a new respect from mainstream critics and moviegoers who once considered him beyond the pale.
``Cry-Baby'' finds Waters in similar territory, although it carries a slightly heavier PG-13 rating for a few self-consciously naughty and yucky moments. The hero is a rebel from the wrong side of the tracks, where the clothes, the cars, and even the songs aren't respectable enough for ``nice people'' from middle-class neighborhoods. Cry-Baby loves a ``square'' girl named Allison, and she loves him, to the horror of her ``decent'' friends.
The story mingles their romance with lots of music, comedy, and nostalgia for the 1950s, when the movie takes place. It runs out of imagination long before it's over, but its best scenes are loaded with color and energy, and Waters has a knack for dialogue that's as funny as it is unexpected: ``You've made me the happiest juvenile delinquent in Baltimore!'' crows Cry-Baby at one point, crystallizing the film's broad mixture of exuberance, sarcasm, and affection for the oldest Hollywood clich'es.
``Cry-Baby'' may turn off some grownups with its touches of lowdown humor and adolescent excess. But the cast includes someone for every imaginable taste. (The one missing performer is the actor called Divine, a longtime staple of Waters movies, who died soon after ``Hairspray'' was completed.) Cry-Baby is played by Johnny Depp, the teen heartthrob of ``21 Jump Street'' on television. Amy Locane, who plays Allison, hails from TV's soap-opera circuit. Also on hand are rocker Iggy Popp, actor Troy Donahue, former Andy Warhol ``superstar'' Joe Dallesandro, actress Polly Bergen, ``adult film'' performer Traci Lords, and longtime Waters associates Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce - plus Hollywood star Willem Dafoe and, as a middle-class mom and dad, no less a duo than David Nelson and, in her movie-acting debut, Patricia Hearst.
Assembling such an unpredictable lineup is great fun for Waters, who has a talent for such feats - he says Mr. Nelson turned down self-parodying roles for 10 years before accepting this one - and seems to consider moviemaking as much a lark as a profession. ``Cry-Baby'' mixes faces from today's youth scene with others from his own movie-fan past. Not surprisingly, Waters has loved show-biz since childhood, when he first started putting on shows. ``I'd charge people a quarter and then squirt them with a fire extinguisher,'' he recalls with a laugh, still delighted at his early proclivity for shocking audiences while amusing himself - the same thing, in some respects, that he does today.
Although he seems to enjoy his reputation as the movie world's bad boy, Waters has a serious streak in his personality. He lectures at colleges and teaches occasionally in prisons; and he has a well-known enthusiasm for cinema on its highest (as well as its lowest) levels. He likes to point out that all his films, even the most outrageous, are about family life - an important subject to Waters, who grew up in a middle-class household and feels very close to his parents today. His father paid for ``Pink Flamingos,'' he happily reports, referring to his most notorious picture. He quickly adds that his father has never seen the film, but that's fine with him. ``Who'd want a father who likes ``Pink Flamingos?''' he asks with a grin.
Waters also speaks with great admiration of such filmmakers as French director Robert Bresson, whom he praises for his rigor and individuality, and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, in whose work Waters sees an extremity of expression not completely unlike his own. Art films and exploitation films are equally valid aspects of cinema, in Waters's view. It's a sign of maturity in today's movie world that his career has been thriving most as he has headed, however wryly and humorously, toward the more substantial end of the spectrum.