A wild ride through the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, AKA actor and drag icon Divine, I Am Divine packs a lot of information into a 90-minute documentary. The Jeffrey Schwarz film paints a portrait of an overweight, bullied kid from Baltimore who rose to infamy portraying “the filthiest person alive” in John Waters’ cult classic Pink Flamingos. Waters describes Divine as “Elizabeth Taylor gone insane” — and this is just one of the colorful and spot-on quotes about “Divy” from friends and fans.
Waters, Divine and their cohorts from Baltimore’s Dreamland Productions were to the 1970s what Warhol’s Factory was to the 1960s, producing outrageous underground films on a shoestring budget. Mercilessly teased at school, young Glenn took refuge in the company of other young Baltimore misfits and the underground gay community. After leading a double life in his late teens and early 20s, Divine finally told his parents he was gay. This revelation effectively ended his relationship with his parents for years.
Waters and young Divine lived down the block from each other as kids and struck up a friendship. Glenn wanted to be a movie star and budding auteur John gave him the perfect vehicles. Today’s CGI gross-outs pale in comparison to some of the low-budget mayhem from Waters and company The defining moment in Divine’s early career came when he ate dog feces in Pink Flamingos.
That scene alone cemented his place in film infamy. Divine’s onscreen persona was funny and terrifying at the same time. Viewers couldn’t take their eyes off this “cinematic terrorist,” as one of the interviewees describes him.
Pink Flamingos may have been Divine’s most highly publicized turn, but his other early roles in Waters’ movies were equally bizarre and funny. In Multiple Maniacs, Divine played a freak show proprietor raped by a giant lobster. As juvenile delinquent turned murderess Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble, Divine sports a Mohawk, dances in a bikini in a go-go bar (all 350ish pounds of him), and shoots an audience member as part of a nightclub act.
Off the set, Divy was generous, upbeat and a bit shy — and certainly lived life to the fullest (Shopping, pot and food were his favorite vices.) Divine branched out into music in the early 1980s as a disco star. He performed snarky comedy and dance routines in full costume that weighed up to 140 pounds. He toured the world, hung out at Studio 54 and partied with Elton John, Grace Jones and other stars of the day. Divine released four studio albums and toured the world selling out clubs, making videos — getting banned from the Top of the Pops along the way for “jiggling too much.” There’s plenty of archival and behind the scenes footage of Divine, Waters and the gang, with anecdotes about the origin of Divine’s distinctive make-up and his early days participating in Baltimore’s drag balls.
Anxious to branch out into mainstream roles, Divine starred in two films with his childhood crush, Tab Hunter. In Polyester, he portrayed the vulnerable housewife Francine Fishpaw, and in the comic Western Lust in the Dust, filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he played a woman of ill repute named Rosie Velez.
The latter film proved quite a challenge for the zaftig Divine due to Santa Fe’s hot weather and high elevation. Hairspray, a musical homage to Baltimore in the early 1960s, gave Waters and Divine their mainstream breakthroughs. The 1988 film co-starred Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono and Jerry Stiller, and Divine returned triumphant to Baltimore for the premiere. His portrayal of harried Baltimore housewife Edna Turnblad received great reviews and made Divine into a true mainstream movie star.
Toward the end of his career, Divine reunited with his estranged parents and became a doting son. His Mom Frances, who passed way in 2009, was his biggest fan. Divine challenged the public’s perception of what constituted a movie star. He transitioned from a cult figure into a comedic movie star even Grandma could love. Tragically, Divine passed away of a heart attack in his sleep the night before he was due to start filming a guest spot on the TV series Married with Children.
The interviewees in I Am Divine include John Waters, Divine’s co-stars Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Lowe and Ricki Lake, his agent, record producer, mother Frances, high school girlfriend and members of San Francisco performance artists the Cockettes. The DVD bonus features includes commentary by Schwarz, Mink Stole and the film’s producer, as well as 15 minutes of deleted scenes.
Divine was much more than a drag queen: He was a character actor devoted to his craft. He introduced mainstream America to drag long before Boy George and RuPaul became household names. I Am Divine takes a comprehensive look at the person behind the phenomenon with compassion and a sense of humor.