SXSW Film Review – I Am Divine
I remember the first time I saw Divine. (I imagine most people remember their first time with her.) It was in the late 1980s at a midnight screening of Pink Flamingos. The minute she came on screen, my jaw dropped, and I knew I was in for something wonderful. A lot gets made of the dog-poop-eating scene, but let me tell you, the whole damn thing is amazing. Partly because the director, John Waters, is a crazy, sick genius, but also because Divine is just so mind-blowingly-over-the-top-willing-to-do-anything great. This story about “the filthiest person alive” is compulsively watchable while still being truly disgusting. The new documentary, I Am Divine, opening at South by Southwest Film Festival and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, tells the story of Divine’s life, and shows the evolution of both Divine the character and Divine the person. (Note: I will be using both male and female pronouns in this review as Divine the character was female, but Divine the person was a man, and preferred to do interviews out of character.)
Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore in 1945. A shy fat kid, he got bullied in school and thus mostly kept to himself. His pediatrician told his mother that he had more female traits than male, and his mother despaired of—but loved—her effeminate son. (When he later came out as gay, that love became not so unconditional for a while.) He started dressing hair, and might have ended up living a fun, but closeted, existence in Baltimore’s underground gay scene. However, two things happened to change all that: he discovered drag and met aspiring filmmaker John Waters. The two formed a working relationship where Glenn, whose movie drag character Divine (he later would take the name himself), would become Waters’s greatest inspiration, and Waters would encourage Divine to become more and more outrageous. As Waters’s films became successful, Divine received opportunities to perform outside of Baltimore—moving to San Francisco to do stage shows with The Cockettes, and later relocating to New York to start a successful recording career. Other opportunities followed, including starring in a non-Waters movie, Lust in the Dust. The mainstream success of 1988’s Hairspray allowed Divine to attract other types of roles, and a male part was written for him on the sitcom Married With Children. The night before he was to begin filming, he died of a heart attack in his motel room.
I really like biographical documentaries, but when they are over, I don’t usually burst into tears of joy about what a wonderful, life-affirming film I have just seen. Which I may or may not have done with I Am Divine. I’ll admit I was having a hard day, but that doesn’t really explain why I experienced such a catharsis at the end of this film. You know that part of the teen movie, where the bullied protagonist stands up to the mean kid, and everybody cheers? And you kind of feel like cheering, but you also feel a little like you were emotionally blackmailed to do so because everything unfolded according to well-worn conventions? That’s not how I felt here, because Divine is never viewed as a victim. Sure, some crappy-ass stuff happened in his life, but that kind of stuff happens to a lot of us. Divine is portrayed in this movie as a flawed person who works really hard, finds success, and dies much sooner than he ought to have. This Divine is not a tragic gay character. He is a triumphant protagonist, who gets success because he works really hard, behaves professionally, and is a good friend to the people he meets along the way. Anybody who has ever felt like a freak—for whatever reason—needs to see this movie. This is not a heartwarming story about overcoming adversity; it’s about a Freak being successful because being a freak is way better when you just give in to it.
I don’t want to give people the idea that this is some kind of hippy dippy lovefest where people only talk about the best parts about Divine. He was a huge stoner, spent way too much money (a lot of it on gifts for his friends), ate too much junk food, and never exercised. There was an unhappy period of his life where he was estranged from his parents, and he was often depressed about being typecast in the Divine role. This is a straightforward documentary that not only gives the details of Divine’s life, but also features a lot of information on John Waters’s films, and how the two men worked together. It’s really interesting, and paints a loving but honest portrait of a complicated person. This is an adult movie that talks about adult stuff like sex and drugs, but if there is a teenage person in your life who is having a hard time coming to terms with their own inner freak, I think this would be a great movie to show how someone can end up on top by embracing who they really are.
Final Grade: A