Sunday, November 19, 2006

How Tennessee Williams saved John Waters' life


"I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself," Tennessee Williams wrote, "would you?"New York Times / Corbis Bettmann

Today's NYT Book Review contains a powerful salute to Tennessee Williams by filmmaker John Waters -- adapted from Waters' introduction to a new edition of Williams' Memoirs published by New Directions.
Tennessee Williams saved my life. As a 12-year-old boy in suburban Baltimore, I would look up his name in the card catalog at the library and it would read “see Librarian.” I wanted these “see Librarian” books — and I wanted them now — but in the late 1950s (and sadly even today), there was no way a warped adolescent like myself could get his hands on one. But I soon figured out that the “see Librarian” books were on a special shelf behind the counter.

[…]

Yes, Tennessee Williams was my childhood friend. I yearned for a bad influence and boy, was Tennessee one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny. I didn’t quite “get” “Desire and the Black Masseur” when I read it in “One Arm,” but I hoped I would one day. The thing I did know after finishing this book was that I didn’t have to listen to the lies the teachers told us about society’s rules. I didn’t have to worry about fitting in with a crowd I didn’t want to hang out with in the first place. No, there was another world that Tennessee Williams knew about, a universe filled with special people who didn’t want to be a part of this dreary conformist life that I was told I had to join.

[…}

“I may be queer but I ain’t this,” I remember thinking. Still reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote, I knew he would understand my dilemma. Tennessee never seemed “gayly-correct” even then, and sexual ambiguity and confusion were always made appealing and exciting in his work. “My type doesn’t know who I am,” he stated, according to legend, and even if the sex lives of his characters weren’t always healthy, they certainly seemed hearty. Tennessee Williams didn’t fit into his own minority, so I had the confidence not to either. Gay was not enough.

It was a good start, however. “I was late coming out, and when I did it was with one hell of a bang,” Tennessee writes in “Memoirs” in 1972, the same year my film “Pink Flamingos” had its world premiere in Baltimore. While I was just getting my first national notoriety, Tennessee was struggling to finish the final version of “The Two-Character Play” and horrifying theater purists by appearing on stage in his new play “Small Craft Warnings,” and then answering questions from the Off Broadway audience afterward to keep the show running. I never once thought this was unbecoming behavior on my hero’s part and tried to follow his example by introducing my star Divine at midnight screenings of our filth epic. “I never had any choice but to be a writer,” Tennessee remembered at the time, and he remained my patron saint. I followed his career like a hawk.
Check out the entire essay. It's not only an eloquent tribute from one gay icon to another, but it's a moving evocation of how books and art can literally be life-saving to misfits everywhere.

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