I AM DIVINE B+
USA (90 mi) 2013 d: Jeffrey Schwarz Official site
An energetic and fun film, offering little new about Divine, but offering a wonderful portrait of her life, especially providing key insight into what made her vital and unique. Jeffrey Schwarz has quite a long history of making documentary short films, making behind-the-scenes videos for films like FOOTLOOSE (1984, 2011), FRIDAY (1995), and RESIDENT EVIL (2002) that were added as DVD extras, though recently his interests have turned to creating feature length biographies of outsider artists, particularly those in the LGBTQ community, like film historian Vito Russo, gay porn star Jack Wrangler, and the master of promotional gimmicks, William Castle. Here he turns his attention to legendary cult film performer Divine, using a brash, quick edited style that is often hilarious, where her persona is born in underground films where she became the queen of oversized drag queens. Born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, his mother was devastated to learn from a physician that he was more feminine than male, known as effeminate, so he was a shy and sensitive kid with no friends who was relentlessly picked on and abused by various local bullies, where he learned to despise school because of how he was treated there. Nonetheless, we meet the girl next door who went to prom with Glenn, where he insisted upon doing her hair and make up, eventually learning to be a hairdresser. She was completely unaware of anyone being gay in those days, so his coming out party was something of a surprise, especially when he chose to be dressed as Elizabeth Taylor. For underground film director John Waters, they met when Glenn moved into the neighborhood at age 17, where he witnessed how he was treated at school, recruiting him to star in his second film ROMAN CANDLES (1966), shot on 8 mm, notable for being Divine’s first film, a name chosen by Waters to depict her larger-than life persona, something she ultimately grew into, culminating with her now legendary performance in PINK FLAMINGOS (1972), the film that put her name on the map.
Without a doubt, the working relationship of Divine throughout the career of John Waters is simply a match made in heaven, as Divine became Waters’ outrageous alter-ego, willing to do anything for the shot, where the clips from their earliest films together are simply hilarious, one of which is a deliberately offensive recreation of the historic Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination in EAT YOUR MAKEUP (1968) with Divine playing Jackie-O in a pillbox hat, or another holding her audience hostage at gunpoint in FEMALE TROUBLE (1974) and demanding “Are you willing to die for art?,” where she then proceeds to start shooting into the audience. What’s especially poignant is the effect Divine had on other gay kids, especially the younger ones, as they literally threw themselves at her during live appearances, as they were so taken by her courage and bravery to stand up and be different. Divine’s coming out precedes the Stonewall riots, where she’s wearing flagrantly shocking make up and giant wigs, where Waters dared to turn a 300-pound drag queen who was not afraid to bare her flab, or wear skin-tight dresses, into a larger-than-life symbol of rebellion, taking her act onstage where she encourages the audience to insult and interact with her during her performance, becoming the Goddess of Bad Taste, like a Don Rickles diva, “So you think all of us outsiders—drag queens, lesbians and gay men—are disgusting? Let me show you what disgusting really is, you prigs.” The list of people offering comments is neverending, yet most offer rare insight into the man behind the persona, where despite the brash outer appearance as a movie diva, expanding what a drag queen could be, he remained a completely different person offscreen, a shy and introverted person who always wanted to be accepted as a man.
One of the truly heartbreaking moments in her life was confessing openly to her parents about her gay sexuality, and her mother immediately threw her out of the house, where they didn’t speak for decades. Her mother can be seen indicating she realized this was a bad decision on her part and regretted it as soon as she said it, but then she never called Divine afterwards to make things right. Many attribute this unfulfilled emotional emptiness as one of the many excesses in Divine’s character, where she often ate to overcompensate for what she felt was missing in her life. But lest we think she was pining away in solitude, think again, as Waters reminds us Divine had cute boyfriends, poster boys and porn stars, and joined a San Francisco psychedelic theater group called The Cockettes, another perfect match, as they both fed off one another’s outrageousness, screening all the early Waters short films, establishing Divine as a cult icon. Divine performed on several hit shows off Broadway, where she met all the stars, including Andy Warhol, where Elton John brought her onstage to perform with him at Madison Square Garden, which may have started a music career as Divine hit the road performing in small and sweaty clubs shaking her booty in slinky gowns, where she was a very popular demand at various openings as she could elevate the energy level to a disco party atmosphere, and Divine loved to dance.
Waters kept working with her for 20 years, where she was always the star of the show, where the images of Divine going toe to toe with Lanie Kazan in LUST IN THE DUST (1985) are simply hilarious, two enormously big-bosomed women, but equally interesting is the affection that developed in working with 50’s matinee idol Tab Hunter. The other huge breakthrough was Waters’ HAIRSPRAY (1988), a hugely successful film for both their careers, as it received critical acclaim from the New York film critics and even Pauline Kael, describing Divine as “something like the lunacy of a W. C. Fields in drag,” but it’s also a film where Divine had to play second banana to a young overweight Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad who was the film’s chubby star, and it featured Divine as a less than glamorous drag queen, drawing sympathy from the audience for her believability in the role of Tracy’s working class mother, “Could you turn that racket down, I’m trying to iron in here.” Divine actually reunited with her mother after decades of silence, an especially tender moment, but also eye-opening when we see her mother hadn’t realized that her son Glenn was actually Divine. Her death was a jolt to everyone, especially because her life was finally obtaining some well-needed balance, and she landed a spot as a regular on the cast of the TV show Married With Children, but had a massive heart attack the night before shooting began. The plethora of voices contributing to this overall portrait is really quite outstanding, and the film is impressive, where even in death Divine remains an iconic force for all rejected souls and outsiders, paving the way for defining one’s own career long before there were publicity agents to do that for you.