On a quiet street in late-1950’s suburban Baltimore – Baltimore! – an apple-cheeked upper-middle-class family moves in and two young men become neighbors by sheer coincidence. No one in their right mind could have predicted that these two boys would form a friendship that would last decades and unleash onto an unsuspecting public some of the most gloriously perverse collaborations in film history.
Then again, the world had never seen the likes of John Waters and Harris Glenn Milstead before.
The criminally entertaining new documentary I Am Divine yanks the cha-cha heels and wipes the liberally-applied makeup off of one of our true queer pop culture pioneers: Divine. Part drag queen, part vixen, part psychopath, and all woman (well, not quite), Divine subverted pretty much everything Hollywood had to say about women, sexuality, glamor, and common decency. Her face – often made up in garish, twisted masks and screaming to bring the walls down – is known everywhere. But the story of the man behind the maniac is much less-known, and I Am Divine is the perfect way both for longtime fans to revisit a wilder age of queer rebellion and for new fans to learn more about a truly iconic star.
Made up mostly of filmed interviews and archive footage from interviews and movies, Divine is a fairly by-the-book package that might very well be the first ever E! True Baltimore Story. But when your subject is a 300-pound man in a tight dress who is getting raped by a giant lobster one minute and eating fresh dog poo the next, it’s probably wise to keep the presentation simple – Divine had a way of eclipsing everything around her, and she is clearly the star here as well.
The film kicks off on the eve of the world premiere of Hairspray, the film that launched John Waters and his fellow Dreamland Studios nutjobs into the mainstream. From there we rewind to Glenn’s childhood as a sensitive boy who wanted desperately to fit in despite his obvious differences (he was overweight, he was effeminate, he loved playing dress-up in his mom’s clothes) and following through to his untimely death at age 42.
While the road is rocky at times, it’s not the downward spiral that we have come to expect from this kind of film: I Am Divine is the rare Hollywood expose that has no interest in passing judgment on its subject. It’s not the tragic tale of drugs, excess and bad behavior that we often see in works memorializing short-lived fringe artists – Divine was, by all accounts, extremely professional and his only real vices were food, weed and shopping – but rather a celebration of how a shy and misunderstood young man used performance art to become a fully-realized person. The point of the film is not to mourn Divine’s death (from a heart attack), but to celebrate his life and his legacy.
Our tourguides through this circus of filth and wonder are a wonderfully kooky array of former collaborators (Waters, of course, along with Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Ricki Lake, and Sue Lowe), friends (photographer Greg Gorman, Warhol muse Holly Woodlawn), and longtime fans (Alonso Duralde, Joshua “Peaches Christ” Grannell) as well as Michael Musto, Bruce Vilanch and others. But the most vital participant is Glenn’s mother, Frances Milstead, who both gives the film its satisfying emotional arc and demonstrates that love is more powerful than lobster-rape.
I’ve personally been a big fan of Divine since forever, and even I learned plenty about the actor in between gasps and chuckles at the anecdotes and classic footage, which are masterfully assembled by veteran schlock documentarian Jeffrey Shwarz (who also directed the decidedly non-schlocky Vito) for maximum impact. It beautifully captures Milstead’s range, his energy, and his enormous heart, and demonstrates just how much less divine the world is without him in it. This raucous, hilarious, and heartfelt tribute to both a legendary pop culture anarchist and the sensitive and hard-working performer beneath the painted-on eyebrows is required viewing for queer cinema fans, pop culture mavens, and freaks everywhere.
I Am Divine opens in select theaters on Friday, Oct. 25th.