Harris Glenn Milstead was the one and only Divine, the first great, international drag star to successfully captivate America’s imagination. Although his reign was brief – sadly, he died in March, 1988 at the age of 42 of heart attack – this outrageous character/persona was propelled from cult figure to film stardom via the mainstream film Hairspray (yes, the original version). Known through his association with the equally outrageous and hilarious John Waters – basically as the “muse” of Waters’ earlier “underground” films, Divine saw himself as an all-around actor/performer, not just a shock-value, midnight movie star (we’ve all seen the dog-shit eating scene in Pink Flamingos).
This wonderful documentary, made by Jeffrey Schwarz and Lance Robertson, is a proper look at Harris Glenn Milstead’s life: interviews done with his mother (from whom he seemed to be estranged), friends from his youth, including a girlfriend from his high school years and many of his co-stars/co-workers – all of whom speak of Divine lovingly and obviously still pained by his untimely/early passing. The clips from John Waters’ earliest movies to feature Divine show the soon-to-be-star already in full-flight, immediately standing out on-screen – how could he not? With the outrageous makeup and louder-than-life persona/characters portrayed, Divine had “star” written all over him. And how interesting is it that a 300-plus pound drag queen could be embraced by way of Hairspray‘s success – it was as if Divine were paving the way for the future of acceptance… Most importantly, are the clips and interviews with Divine himself, almost giving you the feeling that he was still there.
The film also details Divine’s days and somewhat rise as a theater performer and recording artist; it does go into some detail about his personal life but never with a sense of sensationalism – it’s all done matter-of-fact and as part of telling a complete story. Which is, most importantly, what I felt the filmmakers successfully did. They captured a brief life’s story in full and did a wonderful job telling it.
Divine left behind (by way of the genius that is John Waters) an incredibly hilarious/hysterical/insane/you must be kidding body of work. Anyone with a sense of humor and a curiosity as to how our culture has shifted since Divine first kicked the doors in should make it a point to see I Am Divine; it’s wonderful, it’s warm, it’s very touching and it’s funny as all hell. Then work your way backward – you’ll be glad you did.