What fun - for those who merely know Divine as the trash-talking, 300-pound drag queen from John Waters' oeuvre, the documentary I Am Divine ought to inform viewers in the same way the erstwhile Harris Glenn Milstead filled out a plus-sized bra. With lots of warm reminiscences from Divine's friends and colleagues, the film serves a dual purpose as a thorough biography and a fascinating chronicle of fringe culture in the '60s, '70s and '80s. As it turns out, Divine had a hand in many different things - from Mondo Maniacs to Married With Children. Knowing that he accomplished so much before dying at the young age of 42 makes the film all the more astonishing.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz has structured I Am Divine in strict chronological order, which is about the only "straight" thing about this doc. The erstwhile Harris Glenn Milstead led a life as cluttered and flamboyant as his onscreen persona, yet the film also reveals a vulnerable, sweet side rarely seen in the performer. Starting with Milstead's childhood as a fat, effeminate kid in middle-class Baltimore, the film includes great insights on the pre-Divine years from Milstead's mother, Frances, and his high school girlfriend. After a spell as a hairdresser, Milstead befriended Baltimore's outsider clique (including Waters, his neighbor from down the street) and created the brassy, obnoxious Divine character as a reaction against the prim drag scene in the '60s. With Waters' guidance, the character evolved from the blowsy terrorist in 1970's Multiple Maniacs to the outrageous, camped-up "filthiest person alive" seen in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble (the film also gives due credit to makeup artist Van Smith, who created his dramatic arched-eyebrows look for Pink Flamingos). Not hippie, not yet punk, their unique Baltimore-bred scrappy subversiveness blew up - huge. While Milstead was able to parlay that notoriety into other ventures as Divine (well-covered in the film), he eventually reunited with Waters for 1981's melodrama-parody Polyester - acting opposite his childhood idol, Tab Hunter. At this point, he became a gay icon, disco recording star and pretty good actor (throughout Polyester, it's often forgotten that neglected housewife Francine Fishpaw is played by a man in drag). Their next venture, 1988's Hairspray, poised them for a higher level of mainstream fame. For Divine, however, the fizzy '60s-set comedy served as the final showcase his talents. Hours before the first rehearsal on an episode of Married with Children he was cast in, he died in his sleep.
Aside from the John Waters collaborations, I Am Divine delves into several fascinating, not-so well known aspects on Divine's life and career. One thing I didn't previously know - that Divine was briefly involved with The Cockettes, the San Francisco queer-freak-hippie performing group (the subject of another worthwhile documentary in 2002). The film also spends generous amounts of time dealing with Divine's starring in various campy Off-Broadway farces to an appreciative audience in the late '70s, and his subsequent forays in recording offbeat dance music and touring gay nightclubs as a potty-mouthed, Rusty-Warren-In-Drag type. Despite all his success, what he truly desired - to be recognized as a character actor in mainstream Hollywood - eluded him. In the end, what emerges isn't the bitter old queen one might expect but a man who enjoyed every minute he had with gusto.
Partially funded by an internet-driven campaign, I Am Divine serves its subject well with an admiring, campy yet not overtly worshipful tone. Although employing cheesy music and animated segments to its slight detriment, the film delights and informs with plenty of enthusiastic interviewees and excellent use of archival television (a clueless Larry King asking Divine if he's a transvestite) and film clips (Waters' rarely seen Eat Your Makeup and its still-shocking sendup of the Kennedy assassination). Among the Divine devotees gathered for the film: Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto, and Bruce Vilanch.
Wolfe Video's DVD edition of I Am Divine sports a sparkling 16x9 image worthy of its glamorous subject. The film's new, digitally-shot footage looks crisp and bright - perfectly calibrated. It also uses lots of archival footage, which varies in quality but generally comes across satisfactorily.
Available in either 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, I Am Divine's soundtrack is also a cleanly mixed affair. Dialogue is pristine with little in the way of distortion, while the music is robust sounding and seamlessly integrated. Optional English subtitles are also provided.
First up is an entertaining Audio Commentary with director-producer Jeffrey Schwarz, producer Lotti Phariss and Mink Stole - with the three chatting about just about everything onscreen (there are a few dead spots, however). Thirty minutes' worth of Deleted Scenes cover Milstead's traumatic middle school years (as recounted by his mother) and other intriguing subjects. Trailers for this and Wolfe Video's other gay-themed films round out the bonus content.
I Am Divine offers the complete Divine experience - covering the flashy, trashy entertainer's pre-drag years, movies, music and stage with a vibrancy worthy of its bedazzled subject. Rare clips and new interviews with friends and family give a (I've gotta say it) well-rounded portrait of the man. Gone for more than 25 years, the film serves as ample proof that he's still beloved. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.