A tragic figure, a cult figure, a figure of fun with a full figure; in many ways Divine is the perfect subject for a documentary. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the artist better known as Divine escaped a childhood of bullying and estrangement from his parents to become the archetypal drag queen, a film star and disco singer, dying of a heart attack on the eve of his first mainstream television commitment.
To die aged 42 is alone a tragedy, but as Jeffrey Schwarz’s film brings to light, Divine struggled throughout his career to separate Divine the person from Divine the character, and his eventual move from fringe to populist entertainment (playing a man on the long-running Fox series Married… with Children, no less) gave the timing of his sudden death a cruel irony.
The film confronts his complex identity full on, asking close friends and colleagues, notably long-time collaborator John Waters, if Divine ever wanted to be a woman. Talking heads respond with an adamant ‘no’, and go further to admit that Divine yearned to find fame beyond the persona, and often found the charade tiring, asking people to ‘get this shit off me’ as soon as he walked off set or stage.
But ‘this shit’ was what made him famous, and the film charts the careful construction of this image. As a teen, Divine enjoyed cross-dressing, fellow actor David Lochary encouraged it, and Waters christened him ‘Divine’ for their first amateur movies together. It was also Waters who instructed make-up artist Van Smith to ‘do something with his hairline’, thus creating that iconic look (the raised hairline, Smith reasoned rather gloriously, would leave more space on the face for make-up).
The result was nothing more than spectacular and, with his full girth and tight-fitting, trashy clothes, Divine rocked the surprisingly prim drag queen scene of the time. Twin this with his punk sensibility (‘I blow murderers…’ was the opening line for his first live performance) and he pretty much managed to break every taboo going.
Unsurprisingly, Divine’s partnership with Waters emerges as the key to his success, and I Am Divine was made with the filmmaker’s full blessing, affording crucial access to the vast archive of their work together. Theirs was a symbiotic working relationship, with John the wicked master to Divine’s willing puppet. Several contributors remark on how Divine placed blind faith in Waters, allowing himself to fall out of moving cars, swim through freezing rivers in full drag and eat dog shit (for the famed final scene of Pink Flamingos) in the name of making movies. In one of many excerpts from interviews with Divine (often presented, movingly, via his voice alone, set to a rolling slideshow of images), he mentions he never knew whether to hate Waters or thank him for setting him on this path.
But the film offers a fascinating insight into Divine’s life beyond Waters too.A key speaker is Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, who died shortly after contributing to the film, and to whom I Am Divine is dedicated. She recounts ‘Glenny’s’ difficult childhood and cries as she recalls telling her young son that, despite a paediatrician telling her he would always be ‘more female than male’, she told him she would always love him. She admits, however, that when he revealed the full extent of his private life to them as a young adult (up to and including stripping and cross-dressing), she and her husband disowned him. They reconciled in later life, but the film prompts the question of whether the empty space inside Divine referred to by one of his great friends (and which caused him to spend wildly and unsustainably, and to eat uncontrollably) was that vacated by his parents.
Despite the sadness, we are reminded of what an influential figure Divine was, and how his very presence continues to bring comfort to others who identify as outsiders (the fact the film was funded by fans on Kickstarter is testament to their ongoing affection for him). Clips of his live performances, complete with colourful put-downs, are a treat, and the photographs, though in some cases slightly overused, provide a procession of glamour which most of us have no hope of emulating.
Watch the trailer: