18 July 2014 | StevePulaski
"We were freaks, not hippies" - Sue Lowe of John Waters' Dreamland Studios
I remember, in the early 2000's, perusing through my uncle's eclectic, medium-sized DVD collection, looking at the fronts and backs of covers of films I probably shouldn't have been let within a foot of, wrapping my mind around films about slashers, serial killers, necrophiliacs, bum-fights, and, finally, barbaric cross-dressers. The cover that wound up burning itself in my retina was the one for the anniversary edition of John Waters' Pink Flamingos, showing what appeared to be a very homely woman dressed up in a red-colored dress, holding a pistol at arm's length with a load of makeup on, with Daily Variety quoting it as "one of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made." I had to watch this, but I was only eight-years-old at the time. Damn the NC-17 rating.
When I finally grew a bit older, I watched it, and proceeded to write a review of it soon after, simultaneously condemning and praising its ability to go so far with one of the most shocking and asinine premises I had ever seen. To date, it's my favorite film by Waters, and it was largely watchable because of that person on the DVD cover, whom was the cross-dresser that went by the stage name of Divine. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was born in conjunction with the rise of trash filmmaker John Waters, who teamed up with him at a young age to make homemade films that explored and romanticized the idea of filth and exploitation. Waters cast Divine in numerous projects, with arguably his most famous being the aforementioned filth-fest Pink Flamingos and the inspiring, PG-rated musical Hairspray, both of which starred a crossdressing Milstead.
Jeffrey Schwarz's I Am Divine provides us with a look at one of the most seriously passionate and awe-inspiring performers of the last century. Coming from a humble, conservative home in Baltimore, Maryland, Milstead was an overweight child, one who exercised more feminine traits than masculine ones, and, according to Waters, was constantly harassed, teased, and beaten up in school. However, when Milstead soon got out of that madness, he found incredible success with Waters in film and TV, making a name for himself as Divine, the cross-dressing, "cinematic terrorist," who was equal parts terrifying, sexy, and a commanding force on screen.
"I love everything that's bad about America" and that's what I make movies above," John Waters states in I Am Divine, and with that, we realize why Divine was such a great person to use for his movies. Divine had enough charisma and force to make an entire scene her own, with the loyal costume and makeup designer of Van Smith, who helped Divine make his makeup look spot on and the sets on John Waters' films look equally incredible. Smith wound up shaving a great deal of Divine's hair, up until about half way up his head because he felt that there was not enough room on the human face to fit as much makeup and glamor required to make him what he needed to go into character.
The documentary dares to explore every part of not only Divine, which we learn was a character not a lifestyle, but also Milstead, who we learn struggled with weight issues all his life and was a constant over-eater. "If I don't eat it, someone else will," John Waters recalls Milstead saying one day when they were out to lunch. But he didn't feel like changing, nor did he feel like he should compromise things in his life if he was happy with them. What you saw was what you got with Divine and, if you didn't like it, "f*** you very much," was his tagline.
Divine continued to act and star in numerous projects, some directed by John Waters and some not, even forming relationships with several actors, including Tab Hunter, whom he worked with on Waters' Polyester before joining forces on Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust later in his career. However, one of Divine's biggest breaks, aside from the constant one-woman-shows, concerts, plays, and performances, came in the form of Hairspray, which went on to be one of the biggest musicals of all time, where Divine worked alongside Ricki Lake as a mother/daughter duo. Lake comments that Divine eventually grew to become like her mother, and upon release, the film was beautifully received by critics and was met with sold-out showings and insatiable demands for more screenings.
Yet in the wake of all this happiness and glee, with the Divine character etching out of the gay/lesbian audience and trash-seeking cultists into a more mainstream audience, Milstead died from an enormous heart attack shortly after Hairspray was released, unable to read many of the great reviews of the film, which would come later in the film's theatrical and home video run. His untimely death even cut short his ability to play the uncle character on the forthcoming FOX sitcom Married... With Children, which could've helped Milstead branch out to a form of comedy without having to put on a dress and an hour's worth of makeup. The entire circumstance was deeply unfortunate, but also a result of a poor diet investment and a workaholic attitude, which Milstead fearlessly kept until his final night.
I Am Divine tags all these bases in a winning ninety-minutes, effectively establishing a character and a cinematic force that still finds himself far too unrecognized in a mainstream sense. From hitting personal bases, such as Milstead's longstanding conflict and estrangement from his parents to more openly public things, like his filmography and performing art talents, the film is a captivating portrait of one of cinema's most anarchic and liberating stars.
Directed by: Jeffrey Schwarz.