I Am Divine
What really got me while watching "I Am Divine" was the way producer-director Jeffrey Schwarz so deftly mixed the celebratory aspects of the career of Divine with the personal agony of Glenn Milstead.
I’m talking it really, really got to me, as in tearing up in the final minutes. There’s something so sweet and almost unbearably sad in Milstead’s career. This was someone who grew up, as did every gay boy in those days, confused and repressed.
In his native Baltimore, he was a whale out of water (although he did slim down briefly in his teens, Milstead would remain obese, which eventually proved his demise). But Milstead, unlike so many gay kids growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s, received a lifeline.
His name was John Waters, and for anyone who knows anything about the underground cinema movement, that name will have the same resonance as D.W. Griffith or Orson Wells to cineastes.
Waters had the same relationship to his star as Joseph von Sternberg to Marlene Dietrich. He was Divine’s Svengali. Rather than being controlling, however, Waters was liberating. A masterful director who has never received the honor he’s due from his peers because of his outrageous style and "wear it like a badge" outsider status, Waters was able to take Glenn Milstead and help him become the persona that would both propel him to success and deny him acceptance as a male performer.
And therein lies the dramatic tension that makes this documentary so fascinating.
It’s only one aspect of Divine’s extraordinary career, however that Schwarz has so skillfully limned in this brilliantly conceived documentary. Usually when a talking head appears for a sound bite in such a film, I cringe. As a journalist, I know that 90 percent of the footage for such a take ends up "on the floor," as they say.
Here, however, Schwarz has skillfully blended in comments from what seems like dozens of outside observers -- journalists, drag queens, film critics, film industry personalities -- with those close to Milstead throughout his life and career.
There are a few people missing (hello, Lainie Kazan, Divine’s co-star from "Lust in the Dust"!). Overall, Schwarz covers all the bases.
Most importantly, he managed to obtain extensive interviews with Frances Milstead, Glenn’s mother and probably the most important (and problematic -- no fault of hers) person in his life. A super-normal Baltimore housewife, in the last years of her life, Frances graciously took on the mantle of the protectress of her son’s legacy and even a proponent of gay rights and a spokesperson in the fight against bullying.
There are so many other people seminal in Divine’s career that are interviewed here. There are also so many missing, such as David Lochary, the best friend who was with John and Divine in those crazy early years when they were running around Baltimore shooting outrageous no-budget films on a home-movie camera and who died from a drug overdose; Cookie Mueller, the female co-star of so many of those wonderful early films who died of AIDS in New York in 1989 ... the list goes on.
And therein lies the sadness behind that incredible oeuvre that Divine has left us. The magic of John Waters wasn’t just that he was the most significant gay -- not only gay, but a "fuck you, I’m gay" -- writer-director; but that what he had to say, and the way he had to say it, were so important and, yes, even profound.
Waters, like Andy Warhol, understood that great art isn’t only monuments and beauty; it’s also ugly, cheap and dirty. Divine was his muse. She personified his aesthetic, and their collaborations are a result of a meeting of two exceptional people.
Propelled by the totally unexpected success of "Pink Flamingos" (1972) among urban gay and counter-cultural audiences in the early ’70s, Divine went on to star in several of Waters’ films, as well as plays, films for other directors and had a successful career as a disco artist and cabaret performer.
After "Pink Flamingos," which proved to be a mixed blessing (all his life, Milstead was plagued by people who kept talking about that end-of-film dog-shit-eating scene), the other two career highlights proved to be "Polyester" (1981); and his final starring role, "Hairspray" (1988).
I can still remember reading, in a New York Times article bemoaning the lack of good roles for women, film critic Janet Maslin’s wry comment that the best performance by an actress in 1981 was Divine in "Polyester." But even if rhetorical, girlfriend had a point: She was good.
"Hairspray" proved to be both Waters’ final stage in his move from underground cult filmmaker to (more or less) mainstream Hollywood director. The film was sweeter and more palatable than Waters’ other offerings, and Divine’s featured role as the mother of teen-age local-TV dance star and Civil Rights rebel Tracy Turnblad (Rikki Lake, whose interviews here are just heartbreaking) gave Milstead the best reviews of his career.
Alas, it was to end, far, far too soon. On Mar. 7, 1988, Milstead died in Los Angeles. It was the end-point for a life lived always on the edge, to excess, and to extremes.
Fortunately, we have the legacy of Divine’s film work; and this fascinating, expertly directed, wonderfully paced, lovingly produced tribute documentary.
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).