Bernard Jay, best friends, biographical films, cinema, creative muse, David Lochary, Diana Evans, disco, Divine, Divine Trash, documentary, drag performers, drag stars, Eat Your Makeup, Edith Massey, Female Trouble, film reviews, films, Frances Milstead, Glenn Milstead, Hairspray, homosexuality, inspirational films, Jeffrey Schwartz, John Waters, Lainie Kazan, lifelong friends, Mink Stole, Mondo Trasho, Movies, Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Roman Candles, stage names, Susan Lowe, Tab Hunter, Trouble in Mind, Van Smith
When Glenn Milstead died on March 7, 1988, at the tragically young age of 43, he left behind a legion of adoring fans, friends and loved ones, although only those closest to him would probably know him by that name: to everyone else, Glenn would forever be the outrageous, larger-than-life and ludicrously awesome drag performer/John Waters’ muse known as Divine. Although nearly 30 years have passed since Divine’s untimely death, Jeffrey Schwartz’s inspirational, fun and informative new documentary, I Am Divine (2014), brings the star right back to our screens and into our hearts. For anyone who grew up with (and loved) the films of Waters and Divine, this documentary will be essential, if decidedly bittersweet, viewing.
Charting Divine’s entire life, from his lonely childhood all the way up to his death, I Am Divine gives a complete, exhaustive overview of the performer. Filled with fantastic interviews and archival footage featuring such mainstays as John Waters, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Tab Hunter, Lainie Kazan and Van Smith, along with folks like Divine’s high school girlfriend, Diana Evans, and his mother, Frances, I Am Divine paints a picture of a misunderstood and marginalized young person who exploded out of his shell after embracing his homosexuality and, to paraphrase lifelong friend Waters, “never looked back.”
We get plenty of great behind-the-scenes footage from all of the films that Waters and Divine made together (their friendship began when they were both 17 and would be ironclad for nearly three decades), along with a wealth of amazing and, quite often, hilarious anecdotes. The documentary is careful to focus on Divine’s entire career, not just his collaborations with Waters, so we also get plenty of focus on his drag shows (the one based on Masque of the Red Death sounded absolutely amazing), his stage performances and his highly successful disco career. One of the film’s most fascinating factoids is that Divine all but invented electro-rock with his early, punkish performances: the footage of this is not only historically important but actually pretty kickass…it really made me rue missing out on this in the glory days!
While most of I Am Divine is a fun-filled romp, thanks to Divine’s wonderfully boisterous personality, the film doesn’t shy away from the big, dramatic moments. We get plenty of face-time with Divine’s formerly estranged mother, Frances, and the part where she discusses how her and Glenn’s father disowned him after he came clean about his drug use and sexuality is a real heartbreaker. There are also plenty of discussions of Divine’s lifelong weight issues, issues which I never realized were (at least partially) tied to his massive pot habit: you, literally, learn something new every day. There’s also a very interesting, illuminating segment of the film wherein Waters addresses the issue of whether Divine viewed himself as “male” or “female.” According to Waters, Divine never associated with being female: as soon as the camera were off, the makeup came off, too. This ends up dovetailing nicely into discussion of Divine’s “male” film roles, beginning with the noir-lite of Trouble in Mind (1985): it’s really fascinating to see Divine act as “himself,” as it were, which is such a marked contrast from his Divine persona as to prove what a gifted actor he really was.
Ultimately, if you’re a Divine fan, I Am Divine will be absolutely required viewing. Fans of John Waters will also find loads of valuable material here, including some absolutely priceless footage of Waters as a 17-year-old (spoiler alert: John Waters was ALWAYS John Waters, regardless of the age). Jeffrey Schwartz’s loving documentary serves as a wonderful, inspired tribute to one of the best, most popular and most unique performers of the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. Even though Divine’s art originated from a place of pain, he would go on to inspire generations of others through his positivity and refusal to give up or get out of the way. As Divine, himself, was apt to say: “Nothing is impossible: if you’ve got those kinds of dreams, go for them.” Divine had those kinds of dreams and went for them: in the process, he showed us all that we can go for our dreams, too.