DIRECTED BY: Jeffrey Schwarz
PLOT: This documentary chronicles the life of Glenn Milstead, from a chunky effeminate nerd who got beat up at school to the iconic, outrageous and obscene 300 pound drag queen Divine, the main attraction in John Waters’ transgressive early comedies.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As a straightforward documentary on a strange guy who just happened to star in some pretty weird movies, it’s purely supplemental material.
COMMENTS: One of the biggest questions raised by I Am Divine is, do you refer to Divine as “he” or “she”? John Waters, the foremost living authority on the subject, always refers to Divine as “he,” probably because when he thinks of Divine he thinks of Glenn Milstead. Other interviewees are inconsistent, swerving between gender pronouns. Divine, the foul-mouthed three-hundred pound harridan in clown makeup, is clearly a she, while the performer who portrays the character is clearly a he. There isn’t much conflict in this haigiographic documentary that means to celebrate Divine’s life and legacy, but to the extent that there is, one of the two key tensions is the one between she and he, between Divine and Glen. Divine swallowed Glen, and he was unable to escape her mighty maw and forge the independent career as a male character actor that he desired. (The other important conflict, which occurs more on the surface level, is between Glen and his parents, who initially reject him as a freak, then touchingly reconcile late in life).
I Am Divine does a fine job of shrinking this giant career down to a ninety minute snapshot. It’s thorough (even fitting in Divine’s brief stint as a disco diva) while remaining fast-paced and succinct. The John Waters years are covered in detail, and some may appreciate the clips of rarely seen pre-Pink Flamingos films like 1968’s Eat Your Makeup (with Divine as Jackie in an incredibly tasteless recreation of the Kennedy assassination). Although little is revealed here that will shock Divine’s hardcore followers, there are a few surprise tidbits for casual fans: salacious stories suggesting that Milstead’s appetites for sex and pot may have rivaled his love of doughnuts, and scenes from his live show that demonstrate his talent for Don Rickles-styled improvisational insult comicry. Milstead was large enough to have his own gravitational pull (his image even dwarfed a character like John Waters) and some of the movie’s most revealing insights involve Divine’s satellites. Belated credit is given to Van Smith for creating the arch makeup that defined Divine, and the curious will learn the sad answer to the question, “whatever happened to Dreamlander stalwart David Lochary?”
Divine is inspirational to gays for obvious reasons, but the character’s appeal crosses the sexual orientation line. Divine is appealing because she represents the triumph of the misfit, the ugly, the loser. As Waters points out, Divine takes everything that people laughed at Glen Milstead for—his effeminacy, his weight—and “exaggerated it and turned it into a style.” Divine proves that “undesirable” traits can be turned into assets when they’re embraced rather than hidden away, which is a powerful solace to anyone who feels like an outsider forced to pretend to be normal.
I Am Divine was a Kickstarter success story, raising over $50,000 (of a requested $40K) for post-production and licensing costs. Hundreds of names of fans who paid $10 or more for the privilege appear in the seemingly endless credits. Given that the film was made explicitly “BY and FOR” Divine fans, nothing appears here that is too penetrating or negative. The reverential interviews and clips meet, but don’t exceed, your expectations for a documentary about Divine. Still, true priests and priestesses in Divine’s peculiar cult of trash camp will eat this movie up like Divine eats… well, you know.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…shows how the future John Waters muse transformed from an isolated, weird kid into an over-the-top, proudly freakish star… a striking tribute to the pioneering spirit, radical queerness and sheer divinity of Divine.”–Ethan LaCroix, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)