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The Boston Phoenix Waters's World

A day on the set of 'Pecker' with John Waters

By Gerald Peary

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The walls are hard, white, and austere in this hollow, intimidating room for hollow people, where one imagines a stuffy staff in clicky high heels. It's a sleek New York art gallery, down to the right wine glasses for the photography opening, only this one's located in a warehouse in downtown Baltimore, a block and a half from the infamous XXX striptease haven the Block. This ersatz spot, deemed the Rory Wheeler Gallery, is actually a Manhattan movie set for Pecker, the new film comedy written and directed by Baltimore's genial sleaze auteur, John Waters.

Waters invited me to watch a day of shooting for the Fine Line Features production, which is scheduled for release this fall. Although there wouldn't be time to talk to the stars in the cast -- Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, Mary Kay Place -- I could gawk. And Waters had chosen an interesting day of shooting for my visit: Pecker (Furlong), a Baltimore boy taking raw amateur photos, has been discovered by a New York dealer (Lili Taylor). She's brought him, his girlfriend (Ricci), his wild older sister (Plimpton), his blue-collar parents (Place, Mark Joy), his grandmother, and his little sister to the lavish New York opening.

That's what would be filmed: the scenes at the art opening, in which the off-the-cuff, uninhibited Baltimoreans mix with brittle New Yorkers, including press, artists, and gallery directors all making the Chelsea scene. For those few who spoil an opening by actually looking at the photography, it's there on the walls. I look at it: a close-up of a cheese steak; a guy sitting in a laundromat waiting for his wash; a picture of Pecker's little sister ("Little Chrissy Eats Fudgesickle"); rats fornicating. It's with these pictures that Pecker has become the art world's latest sensation.

It's also why real-life New York photographer Cindy Sherman, playing herself, has been written into the scene, which I watch Waters shoot a few times. She's arrived at the opening to check out her youthful competition. While she glares at the photos ("Look a little more troubled -- the way you did it on rehearsal," Waters says), Furlong's Pecker smiles at her when she's pointed out to him. "It's Cindy Sherman, the famous photographer!" he exclaims, in a delightfully squeaky voice that sounds like the Little Rascals' Alfalfa. "Hey, Cindy, thanks for coming to my show!"

The shooting over, Waters asks his photographer actress, "Cindy, were you in SAG before this? Next time, you have to join."

Sherman tells me that she has acted before, in a German television program directed by her artist friend Robert Longo, "a surrealistic historical drama about Heinrich Heine's girlfriend." But, "when John called me up and said he's doing a movie about the art world, and I play myself, I was really nervous. Still, I'd do anything to be in a John Waters film: my hero!

"My favorite films of John's are the darkest, Desperate Living and Female Trouble. Plus Ricki Lake was fantastic in Hairspray.

"I got to know him from my first art show in Baltimore. He came, I was thrilled. We've never had deep conversations about art but many about how the art world functions. And I think it's great that he's making a film that makes fun of the art world, of how pretentious it is, how desperate dealers are constantly discovering 'talent' everywhere . . . like these photos."

It's completely ambiguous in Pecker if the photos are wonderful ones or bogus. However, Sherman off-screen shares the suspicions of her on-screen self. "In the movie, I say, 'Interesting!' I improvised that line," she laughs. "But I do think the idea is more interesting than the photos, the idea of rats fucking. The photography is mimicking work like that of Nan Goldin. My own work is really staged, contrived. This kind of work is closer to photojournalism."

Sherman had one brief scene to go, opposite Pecker's candy-obsessed little sister. "I walk past the little girl having a sugar fit and ask, 'Want a Valium, honey?' "

Are you any good in the movie, I ask Sherman. She shrugs. "I don't know."

Between scenes, I talk to a Bostonian on the crew, Dorchester's Harlem Logan, a PA who also toiled locally as a PA on Robert Patton-Spruill's Squeeze. "Both direct from their own experience, and they prefer to work in their own town. That way, you know the people, but you really know the locations.

"John is just a great guy to work with. He's comfortable with everyone. He's not secretive, doesn't hang out in a hole and not let anyone near him. He's not moody at all, just very professional."

Back on the set, all the principals are involved. Martha Plimpton is in a black wig fit for a male ax murderer in disguise. In the scene, she comes at the director of the Whitney Museum and the prissy male art critic for the Times, saying, "Hey, Mary! I work in a gay bar in Baltimore! I call everyone Mary!" Waters, who is a great guy, diplomatically introduces me as "a wonderful film critic from Boston" to his star, Furlong. I ask about Pecker's awful-hued pants. "The pants are hard to describe," Furlong hesitates. Waters interjects, "They're puke green! My favorite color!"

Shooting commences. It's amazing to see Taylor, Ricci, and Furlong all standing together. America's finest young actors. Really. Ricci looks extraordinary: her great forehead is half of her face, above those sleepy cynical dark eyes. "Everyone in this scene, remember not to look like a galoot!", Waters teases them. "Do as your mother told you, don't scuff your feet. It's a soundman's nightmare."

A few minutes later, Waters whispers to Taylor, "Watch out tugging your pants," but then, remembering a funny story from bygone, no-budget days, he tells everyone in sight, "I made a movie once, Mondo Trasho, where this guy kept holding up his pants for the whole shoot. We had only one costume." Everyone cracks up. You're allowed to on a relaxed John Waters set.

I talk for a few minutes with one of Waters's discoveries on Pecker, Mark Joyce, a little-known veteran of 30 TV-movies-of-the-week, who plays Pecker's father. "I don't have a clue why I was picked," the very modest Virginian says. "My understanding is that they hired an LA actor and lost him. It created a space." The role is that of a tavern owner who finds he's losing his customers to the show-all strip bar that opens across the street. As Joyce describes Pecker's dad, "He's sort of obsessed by pubic hair." He repeats about Waters what everyone else says: "John is very enthusiastic and very easy to get along with. He has no attitude at all. It's so refreshing."

I watch some more shooting, and then Waters walks over to me with a blondish, buxom, very shapely woman in a revealing costume. A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maggie. "Gerry," Waters says. "I'd like you to meet Patty Hearst."

Patty Hearst! I feel myself blushing, a moment of surrealist celeb rub. The world-famous kidnap victim of the Symbionese Liberation Armay! The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the real-life Citizen Kane! And back to the SLA: the infamous Tanya with a rifle! Brainwashed, or a real revolutionary? Waters had cast her in Cry-Baby (1990), and she's back in Pecker as a wealthy, freewheeling New York art patron.

She met Waters at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, when she was there with the Natasha Richardson-starring Patty Hearst, the Paul Schrader movie. She sort of recognized Waters -- because he'd been at her trial every day! Hearst tells me, "He said, 'I always thought you were guilty until seeing the film. Would you be in one of my movies?' "

Hearst has been married for 18 years; she lives outside New York and has two children. She's become close friends with Waters, and she's happy to be part of his repertoire. "I play a brassy art collector who gets drunk in a Baltimore bar and dances around with the strippers."

I notice a quaint, old-fashioned ring on her finger with a pearl the size of a snail's shell. "What a vulgar ring!" she says. "I found it in the bottom of a drawer. It belonged to Millicent Hearst, the wife of William Randolph. You can see an old lady wearing it. I think it's hilarious!"

And probably worth a cool million.

I have to ask the cliché'd question: what if she'd never been kidnapped? Would she have been different? "It's pointless to try to figure it out. It's like figuring if you are different because you survived a plane crash."

Hearst was attending Berkeley when she was taken by the SLA. But here's something to ponder: "I wanted to go to BU, and my parents wanted me to stay in California. I said yes to my parents. What a mistake!"

It's a Friday, and the principal actors on Pecker race for the train that'll take them to New York for the weekend. They'll be back Monday.

Into the cool evening, Waters shoots an exterior scene outside the "Manhattan gallery" with a few actors and a Yellow Cab with a New York license. He's all business, all energy, which means he also has time to gossip. In the middle of the filming, he grabs my arm, tells me of a certain well-known actress, and points to one of his muscular camera assistants. "That guy had a wild affair with her on Cry-Baby," he whispers. "That's off the record!"


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