Tag Archives: Divine



Format: Cinema

Screening as part of Scalarama 2014

Screening Dates: 2 – 29 September 2014

Venue: Various

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey

USA 1981

86 mins

Pity poor Francine Fishpaw, a would-be domestic goddess, finds herself surrounded by a wretched, ungrateful family determined to humiliate her and lay her low. Her mother is a spiteful shrew, her husband Elmer is a porno theatre-owning philanderer, son Dexter is a drug-addled wreck with an uncontrollable foot fixation that leads to his conviction as the notorious ‘Baltimore stomper’, and daughter Lulu has been made pregnant by a low-life delinquent and is enthusiastically pursuing an abortion. There seems to be no end to her misery (even a would-be picnic in the great outdoors is immediately plagued by ants and a determined skunk), but can the arrival in her life of mysterious, handsome Todd Tomorrow bring her the happiness she deserves?

Polyester is John Waters’s transition film, marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble) that made his name as the Pope of Trash, and before the surprising, genuine mainstream success of Hairspray. Released in 1981, Polyester was the first of his films to be shot on 35mm, to get a proper MPAA rating, to feature a name actor (well, Tab Hunter), and, unlike its predecessors, it has decent enough sound quality that you can hear all the dialogue – it even opens with an ambitious helicopter shot. This was the first Waters movie that regular cinema-going America had access to, and I for one would love to travel back and witness the reaction, because despite the technical developments, it’s still a weird, idiosyncratic ride.

Clearly a reaction to 1950s melodramas like Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Polyester isn’t so much a parody, it’s more of a Sirk film made in John Waters’s head, with all of his obsessions allowed free rein. While he has fun playing with that toy box, he is clearly incapable of delivering anything as conventional as a straight spoof. So Francine (Divine, of course) goes through hell, but we are denied the moment of empowerment that a Hollywood film would turn upon; she mainly just reacts, usually hysterically, to the barbs and cruelties that Waters throws her way. The twists and turns of her children’s lives happen outside of her control, and justice is delivered by blind fate alone. The drama doesn’t build or progress in any conventional way: stuff happens, then more stuff happens. Thankfully, it’s generally amusing and alarming stuff, and while the film is funny as hell, the humour doesn’t arise from jokes as such – it’s more that laughter is the only available response to this parade of appalling and inappropriate behaviour.

Waters’s ever quotable dialogue is played to the hilt by the usual stock company of enthusiastic amateurs and Baltimore characters, supplemented by seemingly random ‘names’ (Stiv Bators, lead singer of the Dead Boys, pops up, enjoyably, as Lulu’s no good squeeze Bobo, in much the same way as Iggy Pop would later do in Cry Baby). Tab Hunter throws himself into the proceedings with admirable zest, Mink Stole is back as the delightfully debauched Other Woman, Ken King and Mary Garlington are great value as Francine’s rotten kids, while Edith Massey, as Cuddles Kovinsky, manages to steal scenes while delivering her lines with all the slick assurance you would expect from a school nativity play or a Warhol production. All this happens against a backdrop assembled with obvious love and care, the attention to detail in costume and set dressing ensuring that the bad taste is exactly the right kind of bad. The soundtrack is, rather awesomely, a collaboration between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Michael Kamen and, on one track, Bill Murray.

And, glory of glories, anybody attending the Scalarama festival screenings in September will be able to see the film as it was originally intended, in magnificent ‘Odorama’. Viewers in 1981 were presented at the box office with a printed card of 10 numbered circles, which, as ‘Dr Quackenshaw’ explains at the start of the film, are to be scratched and sniffed when the corresponding number shows up on the screen. This schtick was a loving tribute to cinematic showman William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill), whose gimmicks ‘Percepto’, ‘Emergo’ and the like, made a lifelong fan of Waters as a child back in the 50s. Thus, as we view Polyester, we are assailed with various scents, starting with a rose, but including farts, airplane model glue, gasoline, pizza and dirty shoes, all integrated into the storyline, usually through scenes of Divine animatedly sniffing out another low. The amount of time, money and effort that must have gone into doing something so patently silly pays off big time, as every screening turns into a kind of lowbrow collaborative art project that is pretty much impossible not to enjoy, as we all arrive, sniffing our tears away, at scent number 10.

Polyester is definitely one of Waters’s best films, and I highly recommend attending an ‘Odorama’ screening for a unique night at the movies. Check out the full Scalarama line-up for other mind-bending celluloid offerings on the way.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

I Am Divine

I Am Divine 4
I Am Divine

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 July 2014

Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures

Director: Jeffrey Schwarz

USA 2013

90 mins

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).

I Am Divine is released on DVD in the UK on 25 August 2014.

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.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer:

Female Trouble

Female Trouble

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 July 2007

Distributor: Entertainment in Video

Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary

USA 1974

97 mins

The Cinema of Transgression movement was named in the mid-1980s by Nick Zedd, although independent filmmaker John Waters was doing the leg work in the mid-1970s. His irreverent and splendid films challenged accepted notions of normality with a truly free spirit, including the black comedy atrocity that is Female Trouble (1974), starring actor, singer and drag queen Divine as Dawn Davenport. Here, John Waters revels in a thorough stripping apart of a 1970s North American puritan, conservative moral code. He replaces it with as much grotesquerie you can fit into a 97-minute feature. Self-confessed ‘thief and shit kicker’ Dawn and her crew know no bounds as they trash conventional heterosexual family values, shove a stiletto heel into the ideal of passive femininity and spit in the face of the law. Dawn does not back down. This is a diva biopic that dispenses with sentimentality and spoons on the dirt.

Divine is unique as Dawn as we follow her on a journey from destitution to stardom. She starts as a teenage runaway when her parents don’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas. Then she moves quickly on to single motherhood, cat-burgling, stripping and finally extremist modelling. Other Waters favourites feature: Edith Massey plays the burlesque Aunt Ida and her hyper-tense daughter Mink Stole as Taffy. Both characters give the film some of its hilarious incisive lines, as when Taffy retorts to her step-father, ‘I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls,’ and Ida says to her nephew Gator: ‘I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.’

When Dawn is recruited by über-fashionista couple the Dashers, played by Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary, she embraces their mantra ‘Crime is beauty’. They teach Dawn how to jack up on liquid eyeliner and promise her fame in return for racy photographs of her involved in violent acts. Dawn becomes more and more drawn into the idea that violence and disfigurement are truly sublime. With this descent, or ascent, depending on how you want to look at it, Waters stretches the limits of taste even further. Many mainstream directors dip one toe into the mire of pevrersion, wave it about a bit and pull out before they do anything the censors or the imaginary, banality-loving audience might not like. Narratives are neatly tied up, the ‘immoral’ are punished. Waters doesn’t do this. Without giving too much away, Dawn does get stung in the end for her depravity in a Gun Crazy meets Sunset Boulevard face-off. Although I can hardly say that Waters’s ending conveys a sense of normality resuming. Waters and other transgressive filmmakers like him raised questions about what normal was in the first place. Once criticised for his ground-breaking work Waters is now a national treasure, but his work has a resounding message: ‘It’s normality that should keep you awake at night, not me.’

Nicola Woodham