[22 April 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Drag was pretty,” remembers drag performer Jackie Beat. “And it was thin.” Divine was not. Instead, Divine was large and loud, an actor who challenged expectations, even among drag queens. Going to drag parties in DC during the ‘60s, Divine saw the performers hard at work, their makeup just so, their dresses glamorous. “After a while,” he says over grainy amateur footage of just such a scene, “I saw that they were so serious, it made it ridiculous. I didn’t want to be like them. I really couldn’t get into it like they did. And I thought, I might as well just have fun, you know.”
These early moments in I Am Divine make clear the genius of Divine, his understanding of how even the most apparently nonconformist activity can become conformist. As friends, colleagues, and his mother Frances Milstead recall the actor’s too short life, they come back repeatedly to this idea, that he was the “queen of misfits”.
Speaking with director Jeffrey Schwarz and Divine’s frequent costar Mink Stole on the meandering and wholly delightful commentary track for the recently released DVD, producer Lotti Pharris Knowles elaborates: being a fan of Divine is like being part of a club or special community, sharing in a “sense of Divine’s outsiderness”, celebrating what it means to be “outside the mainstream”, even when Divine and John Waters made movies that were—against all expectations—favorably reviewed by the New York Times.
This perpetual challenge to the very concept of norms, of fitting in, shapes the story of Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead. Waters observes that even when Divine was making his first forays into drag, he saw his work as resistance, exposing the process by which even the most outrageous notion might be consumed and made ordinary, predictable, or too “serious”. Divine “wore clothes that you would never wear when you’re overweight,” says Waters, “And that’s when he realized the attention was so much more. Now, I encouraged this heavily, because he was making fun of drag.”
Having fun and making fun were simultaneously central to Divine’s persona, even as that persona was sometimes a burden. As Mink Stole puts it, “People couldn’t see past the man in drag to the commitment to the performance,” that is, the performance that determinedly revealed the lie of the norm. This performance was famously multifaceted and evolving, made increasingly complex throughout Divine’s many collaborations with Waters’ troupe, including Mink Stole. Waters notes that at first —in Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos, for instance—Divine was cast as the “monster"m the embodiment of a social underbelly that made viewers squirm and laugh and seek release.
In later films, like Hairspray, Waters had Divine play a more sympathetic and vulnerable figure. In part, this shift was indicated by costume and makeup changes: Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport made her way from dirty dance clubs to electric chair, proclaiming her defiance at every step, and Babs Johnson, competing for the title “filthiest person alive”, notoriously eats dog shit in Pink Flamingos. But Edna Turnblad wore flouncy housedresses and curlers, outfits a drag queen would not, as she mothered Tracy (Ricki Lake) in Hairspray.
I Am Divine shares memories with Glenn’s high school girlfriend Diana Evans (“He was attentive and loving, he watched out for you,” she says, and he also had particular ideas of what she should wear and how she might look her best), his still devoted assistants (because Divine was extravagant when buying gifts for friends, Jay Bennett remembers, “It was a bumpy ride with money, but we always made it work”), and his costars, including Tab Hunter (who appeared with Divine in Polyester and also Lust in the Dust, both brilliant satires of the Hollywood norms the very pretty Hunter embodied as a young actor). All remember his outsized appetites, his love of food and marijuana (his “drug of choice and only vice,” says casting director Pat Moran, “that led to the vice of a big fat cupcake”), and all remember how much fun they had with him.
The film also looks at Divine’s non-Waters career, shows off Broadway, a recording contract (producer Mark Bauman points out that he was a “record performer, you can’t call him a singer”), and a role on Married With Children as a man. (The DVD also includes a collection of amusing deleted scenes.) Waters says he encouraged Divine to take up these opportunities, to explore roles and ideas beyond what they did together. Yet both Waters and Divine remain connected in a collective memory, as the documentary shows, a set of challenges that resonate to this day.