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Review: Documentary ‘I Am Divine’ Shines A New Light On John Waters’ Most Notorious Collaborator

Review: Documentary 'I Am Divine' Shines A New Light On John Waters' Most Notorious Collaborator

Even if you’ve stayed away from every John Waters film ever made, the chances of not knowing who Divine was are slim. The image of a 300-pound drag queen wearing a skin-tight red dress with candy-colored wig, bombastic face make-up, and pointing a gun at everything society consumes to be beautiful has been burnt deep enough into the culture to be instantly recognizable. Whether you’ve actually seen “Pink Flamingos” or not is temporarily beside the point. Loud, proud, and outrageous in every entertaining sense of the word; Divine has become—largely thanks to his work with Waters—a symbol for the countercultural movement in the ’60s and ’70s, and the personification of the “fuck you, you fucking fucks” angst towards society’s norms. Jeffrey Schwartz‘s documentary on the man behind the queen, which has been raising dust at festivals around the world, works so well because you don’t need to have seen a single John Waters film to connect and feel truly inspired after watching the kind of life Harris Glenn Milstead led.

Schwartz goes for conventional documentary structure, which works only because his subject is such an unconventional personality. Talking head interviews with family, friends, and colleagues; most notably John Waters, Glenn’s mother Frances, childhood friends, members of The Cockettes, and fellow performers from the off-Broadway show “Women Behind Bars,” paint a vivid picture of the kind of influence and impression Divine had on the people closest to him. If the documentary covered a linear Hollywood success story, this is the exact kind of set up that would have been its death knell. But Divine hung out in professional circles extravagant enough to spit out some of the wackiest characters around; Waters himself being a hypnotic tonic for the ADD crowd, and members from the theatre troupe Cockettes looking like they deserve documentaries of their own. The flipside to that is the intimate story of Glenn as told by his more intimate circle; those who loved him outside of his costumes. His adorable mother, a woman clearly torn between the love she harbored for her son and the old-school disdain she was brought up with, his high school girlfriend who never gave his affinity for playing hairdresser a moment’s notice, and Waters again—who more than anyone else belonged in both of Divine’s circles.

Schwartz uses the most poignant interview of all as his mainstay one, which is Milstead himself, outside of make-up and glowing with happiness, talking about his life. The rough childhood he had growing up in Baltimore, his first encounter with a 17-year-old John Waters and their bonding over LSD and Bergman movies, working on ridiculous short films, the rise to underground superstardom, and getting raped by a giant lobster in “Multiple Maniacs” only a few years before “Pink Flamingos” vomited its way into people’s psyches. Once everyone heard about the dog shit at the end of ‘Flamingos,’ the persona of Divine rose like an overweight phoenix from the ashes of decorum and never stopped to take a breath. And yet, it’s the less talked about success outside of Waters’ films, which provide much of the fascination for those unfamiliar with Divine’s story. 

His drag queen shows with infectiously entertaining themes, the theater work as matron of an all-female prison in “Women Behind Bars,” and—an absolute highlight—his record performing techno career. Schwartz covers this all through fastidiously selected footage and various interviews Milstead had in his lifetime, and all the way to the point of getting sick of always talking about the dog shit. Which is beyond doubt the biggest thing to take away from “I Am Divine”: there’s infinitely more to the man than the obscene drag queen who ate real dog feces for John Waters. His lifelong struggles as a homosexual man who loved to dress up in women’s clothing, a pothead who wanted to devour everything in front of him, and an actor desperate to make Hollywood appreciate his talents, are carefully balanced by his emphatic energy, altruistic love for people and all-encompassing generosity for those dear to him. What Schwartz succeeds in conveying is a complete picture of a flawed human being who was divine in much deeper ways than the most familiar one.

If you have stayed away from every John Waters film ever made, chances are big that the iconic image of Divine in that red dress is exactly the kind of anarchy you’d want nothing to do with. In that case, this one’s for you. As much as Schwartz’s documentary will please the multitude of Divine fans in the world, it feels like the true target audience for “I Am Divine” is exactly the kind of people who stay away from the outlandishly perverted—and at times downright disgusting—cinema Divine was a part of. If that is truly the case, then here’s hoping the DVD release makes sales, because no matter how resolved your preconceived notions are before watching this documentary, the entertaining, inspirational and surprisingly gentle cultural figure of Divine will make you eat your shitty notions right up.

“I Am Divine” is now available on DVD.

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