Film Review: I Am Divine

Surprisingly rich, funny and moving documentary about one very big—in every sense—personality.

There never was, nor will there probably ever be, anyone like him/her. Divine was a 300-pound drag queen who, as opposed to many in that field, purposely eschewed any attempt at a flawless facsimile of feminine beauty in favor of a far more individualistic look which, with its crazily plucked and arched eyebrows, tornado coiffure and skintight trash attire like some Frederick of Hollywood's nightmare, was at once daunting and searingly unforgettable. Jeffrey Schwartz's entertaining, informative and touching documentary I Am Divine tells the story of a truly unique personality who briefly shot across our collective consciousnesses, leaving a sequin-studded wake of outrage, excess and some gut-wrenchingly good laughs. 

Born Glenn Milstead in 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland, he was ever the misfit, a would-be hair stylist until, at 17, he fell in with neighbor and fledgling filmmaker John Waters. They formed Dreamland Productions, Glenn changed his name to Divine (Waters' inspiration) and he became Dietrich to his von Sternberg. But instead of playing impossibly glamorous temptresses, Divine specialized in satiric roles for which he was physically and temperamentally impossible, like Jackie Kennedy and Diane Linkletter, drug-overdosing daughter of TV personality Art, in outrageously raw short films which ruthlessly mocked Middle America and its every aspiration.

The films got more elaborate, reaching an early apotheosis with Pink Flamingos, which put both kids on the map, a midnight-movie sensation notoriously featuring a dog-poop-eating scene that would haunt Divine for the rest of his life. The even funnier Female Trouble followed, as well as bona-fide celebrity with Divine being embraced by such as the Warhol set and making a hilarious New York stage debut in Tom Eyen's cult classic Women Behind Bars. Clips from film and stage productions confirm what a singularly talented and terrifically funny performer he was, and laughter, of course, has to be the best way to remember him after all.

More films with Waters followed, with bigger budgets and famous co-stars (Tab Hunter and Lainie Kazan in Lust in the Dust) and then a final apotheosis, Hairspray, which really and finally crossed over into mainstream culture. Sadly, after receiving the best reviews of his life with serious offers for serious work pouring in, Divine died in 1988 of heart failure at the heartbreakingly young age of 42.

Using a colorful wealth of interviews, Schwartz paints a fully rounded portrait of this fully rounded star, detailing the shaping of that rara avis persona (makeup man Van Smith bears a big brunt here), his essentially sweet, surprisingly shy nature, as well as his self-destructive tendency to excess, be it too easily acquired intoxicants or, always, food. There have been other docs about John Waters and his coterie, and a lot of this may be familiar ground to some, but Schwartz's comprehensive focus pays off and fresh information is imparted.  When Divine came out to his mother, she cut him off for years before they were happily reunited and, as this very sweet-seeming little old lady tells it now, it's a very moving tale, not wholly unfamiliar to generations of gay men. And it's nice to discover, for example, that this was not a case of the lonely clown adored by multitudes and then it was home alone to an empty bed. Divine enjoyed to the fullest the company of a surprising number of very hot and pretty young boys.

The grimness under the glamour is also revealed, particularly in Divine’s rather questionable music career with indifferent make-a-buck-quick records and all of the many personal club appearances he did to earn a buck and keep his name out there, despite the immense physical toll it took upon this never healthiest of souls. I remember being in the deserted basement of a New York club one night , seeing Divine braying a lewd version of "The Name Game" to a crowd which virtually and sadly consisted of, well, me. Another happier encounter was one insanely fun night in another club, where no one present was feeling any pain, and it got the point where Divine screamed at me, "He's cut off!"

"He died of happiness," observes his manager Bernard Jay, and it's nice to think he did. Whoopi Goldberg said it best, perhaps, with the message on the wreath she sent to his funeral, "See what a good review will do?"