[24 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There was no greater star than Harris Glenn Milstead. He represented the perfect post-modern put-on, a clever combination of old school Hollywood glitter and new wave cultural cool. Granted, he was an outsider who never quite fit in around his Baltimore pals and it took an accidental friendship with future Prince of Puke John Waters to transform him into the definitive drag queen, but for anyone who saw his/her work, Divine was more than just a guy gussied up in outrageous make-up and too tight clothes. She was an instant icon, a true talent underappreciated in her time and sorely missed today. Had she lived, Divine would be front and center of our new temperament and tolerance, as always, a force to be reckoned with while mocking said stance with perverse glee. Luckily, those who never knew her or her amazing work have a chance to learn what we’ve all lost with the sensational documentary I Am Divine. It’s a melancholy work of wonder.
Acting as both a biography and personal primer, this excellent overview from director Jeffrey Schwarz does a damn fine job of putting Milstead’s intriguing life into context. Those who’ve memorized every page of Waters’ magnum opus, Shock Value, will instantly recognize many of the stories here, but for the most part, this film isn’t out to dish the dirt so much as service its sensational diva. It’s been a quarter century since we last saw the oversized goddess, her untimely death at age 42 one of the saddest days in (outsider) movie history, so Schwarz knows that most people only known Divine from her various movie and TV appearance. This documentary, featuring many familiar faces talking about their time with the talented, troubled soul, is meant to provide some context to all the crazy rumors and sensationalized stories. And it does.
Before Pink Flamingos, before the surrealist stage shows and hopeless heartbreaks, there was Glenn. As his mother loves to point out, her son never quite fit in. We see the early years, when drag became a way for this alienated youth to express himself. It wasn’t long before the future Divine was hanging out with Waters and the rest of the Dreamlanders (named after the director’s homemade production company, Dreamland Studios), making arty little cinematic experiments inspired by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and the Kuchar Brothers. Never believing it would amount to much, the living members of the renegade repertoire argue that, of all the people, Glenn/Divine was the most daring. She agreed to almost anything, from wearing deranged eye make-ups and skin tight gold lame go-go outfits to being “raped” by a plaster of Paris lobster.
But it was a last minute addition to the Pink Flamingos shoot that skyrocketed Divine to cult superstardom. Waters had wanted a talking point, a water cooler moment to give his movie about “the filthiest people alive” a pre-credits kicker to fuel fascination and fiscally necessary word of mouth. Ever the trooper, Divine agreed to eat actual dog shit, “live” on camera, thereby cementing her and the film’s still strong reputation. From there, she and Waters worked tirelessly to take her beyond the whole Midnight Movie circuit. First there was the sensational stage show which drew on everything from Divine’s identification in gay circles to the Manson Family murders, including an infamous moment (repeated for Waters’ amazing masterpiece Female Trouble) where the 300 pound princess jumped on a trampoline while firing a gun and throwing fish at the crowd. This lead to work in legitimate theater, an attempt to break out of the cinematic underground, and a gradual (and glowing) acceptance among those in the mainstream.
If there is a dark side to all the high points in I Am Divine, it’s learning how unhappy the star typically was. Constantly troubled by his weight and attempts to control same, there were also a series of unhappy relationships and career setbacks. As a homosexual, Divine was far from closeted, but she had the unfortunate luck to live in some of the most repressive times. The ‘60s and ‘70s were far less enlightened than our supposedly tolerance times today, but there was always a desire to perceiver, to prove that she was more than just a man in woman’s clothing. Waters says it best when he states that Divine wasn’t, in his mind, a drag queen. Instead, she was an actress who typically played a woman. Sadly, that was a tough concept for many in the industry to wrap their heads around, though Divine was making headway in that arena before she passed.
Those looking for insights beyond the obvious will marvel at much of the archival material Schwarz has unearthed. There’s also a few jaw-droppers, including intimate photos of Divine and her various partners over the years. What the documentary makes clear is that, for everything the outside world had to offer, the fame and the pageantry, the job offers and the cool rebuffs, Harris Glenn Milstead was still a fragile and often unhappy person. Clearly, she was so ahead of her time that the future is still trying to catch up to her (are you listening, RuPaul et. al.?) but that didn’t stop people from dismissing her as a novelty, an one note individual whose only real claim to fame was chewing on some pup’s poop. It’s a sentiment stridently attacked by those who knew and worked with her, including Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Susan Lowe, and Mary Vivian Pierce.
Indeed, the biggest tragedy on display is how unfairly pigeonholed Divine really was. Anyone who saw her act, either in person (she had quite the music career abroad) or on the big screen, knew there was much more to her than a puff of hair, some severe eyeliner, and a revealing gown. There was a real artist at the center of her shtick, a creative compliment to Waters wacked genius and, together, they changed the face of outsider cinema forever. I Am Divine might not be the wicked warts and all some demand, and if you love her hilarious Highness (as I do), much of this will be rote. Still, as a celebration of one of the most unique talents in the history of all mediums, this movie does her more than justice. There will never be another Divine. 25 years later and no one has come close to filling her infamous cha-cha heels. This documentary shows you why.