I Am Divine (2013)
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When I finally grew a bit older, I watched it, and proceeded to write a review of it soon after, simultaneously condemning and praising its ability to go so far with one of the most shocking and asinine premises I had ever seen. To date, it's my favorite film by Waters, and it was largely watchable because of that person on the DVD cover, whom was the cross-dresser that went by the stage name of Divine. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was born in conjunction with the rise of trash filmmaker John Waters, who teamed up with him at a young age to make homemade films that explored and romanticized the idea of filth and exploitation. Waters cast Divine in numerous projects, with arguably his most famous being the aforementioned filth-fest Pink Flamingos and the inspiring, PG-rated musical Hairspray, both of which starred a crossdressing Milstead.
Jeffrey Schwarz's I Am Divine provides us with a look at one of the most seriously passionate and awe-inspiring performers of the last century. Coming from a humble, conservative home in Baltimore, Maryland, Milstead was an overweight child, one who exercised more feminine traits than masculine ones, and, according to Waters, was constantly harassed, teased, and beaten up in school. However, when Milstead soon got out of that madness, he found incredible success with Waters in film and TV, making a name for himself as Divine, the cross-dressing, "cinematic terrorist," who was equal parts terrifying, sexy, and a commanding force on screen.
"I love everything that's bad about America" and that's what I make movies above," John Waters states in I Am Divine, and with that, we realize why Divine was such a great person to use for his movies. Divine had enough charisma and force to make an entire scene her own, with the loyal costume and makeup designer of Van Smith, who helped Divine make his makeup look spot on and the sets on John Waters' films look equally incredible. Smith wound up shaving a great deal of Divine's hair, up until about half way up his head because he felt that there was not enough room on the human face to fit as much makeup and glamor required to make him what he needed to go into character.
The documentary dares to explore every part of not only Divine, which we learn was a character not a lifestyle, but also Milstead, who we learn struggled with weight issues all his life and was a constant over-eater. "If I don't eat it, someone else will," John Waters recalls Milstead saying one day when they were out to lunch. But he didn't feel like changing, nor did he feel like he should compromise things in his life if he was happy with them. What you saw was what you got with Divine and, if you didn't like it, "f*** you very much," was his tagline.
Divine continued to act and star in numerous projects, some directed by John Waters and some not, even forming relationships with several actors, including Tab Hunter, whom he worked with on Waters' Polyester before joining forces on Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust later in his career. However, one of Divine's biggest breaks, aside from the constant one-woman-shows, concerts, plays, and performances, came in the form of Hairspray, which went on to be one of the biggest musicals of all time, where Divine worked alongside Ricki Lake as a mother/daughter duo. Lake comments that Divine eventually grew to become like her mother, and upon release, the film was beautifully received by critics and was met with sold-out showings and insatiable demands for more screenings.
Yet in the wake of all this happiness and glee, with the Divine character etching out of the gay/lesbian audience and trash-seeking cultists into a more mainstream audience, Milstead died from an enormous heart attack shortly after Hairspray was released, unable to read many of the great reviews of the film, which would come later in the film's theatrical and home video run. His untimely death even cut short his ability to play the uncle character on the forthcoming FOX sitcom Married... With Children, which could've helped Milstead branch out to a form of comedy without having to put on a dress and an hour's worth of makeup. The entire circumstance was deeply unfortunate, but also a result of a poor diet investment and a workaholic attitude, which Milstead fearlessly kept until his final night.
I Am Divine tags all these bases in a winning ninety-minutes, effectively establishing a character and a cinematic force that still finds himself far too unrecognized in a mainstream sense. From hitting personal bases, such as Milstead's longstanding conflict and estrangement from his parents to more openly public things, like his filmography and performing art talents, the film is a captivating portrait of one of cinema's most anarchic and liberating stars.
Directed by: Jeffrey Schwarz.
Glen Milstead was a seemingly unremarkable kid. After all, he grew up in the rather unglamorous city of Baltimore and there was little about his early years that would indicate he'd be world famous by his incredibly premature death at age 42. But, from this humble beginning somehow sprang one of the most outrageous stars of the 1970s and 80s...and this film is his story.
Not surprisingly, the film begins with a lengthy discussion of his childhood and early adulthood. Much of this was provided by his mother, Frances, but many friends contributed as well. However, in his late teens, the sorts of friends he began associating with changed dramatically. Up until then, he'd been a rather nerdy, chunky kid with a long-time girlfriend who was also secretly gay---and with few other friends. However, when he met up with John Waters and the rest of his bizarre group of friends, Glen soon transformed himself. Some of the transformation involved drugs and parties, but the most outrageous change was his creation of a character Waters christened 'Divine'. And Divine began appearing in a lot of super-cheap, offensive and weird underground films by Waters. At first, no one noticed because no one was ready for such strangeness. But, slowly, the character's impact began to grow. How it went from playing in super 8mm films to a world- wide star is the subject of the rest of the film. I could say more, but frankly it's better if you just see the film.
The documentary, fortunately, is not just a list of his screen credits and discussion of his films, but talks about his stage and music career as well. Additionally, it shows a lot of genuine affection for Glen from all his friends, co-workers and mother. And, about the part of him that was sad--the part that ate compulsively to fill some unfilled void. This portion was actually quite touching--and let you know that off-screen and off-stage, he was very little like his insane persona, Divine.
So, why is this a film that I recommend that most of you don't see? Well, first it's so incredibly offensive--mostly because Divine was a deliberately offensive character. She curses, make a lot of crude remarks about sex and is a walking horror show in the film. If you got the joke--it is great. But many will simply be offended--especially when they talk about what he did at the end of the film "Pink Flamingos"! As a fan of Divine who has seen him/her in just about everything (including most of the old 8mm films), I adored I Am Divine and was thrilled to hear about Glen and Divine's successes...and oddness. I also have very thick skin and a love of weird films--and Divine's are a very strange assortment of movies--to put it mildly! If you are already a fan, this film is for you!! It's better than the other biographical documentary, "Divine Trash"--mostly because it just seems a lot more complete. Plus, it's so well made and informative--and it's exactly what his fans will love. If you are not, watch at your own risk!! In fact, I recommend in this case you do some film watching BEFORE you watch this bio. Start with his LAST film (the original "Hairspray") and work your way backwards!! Then, after you've become thoroughly indoctrinated (if you can make it that far because they get weirder and more offensive the farther you go), then try seeing "I Am Divine"! Seriously. Otherwise a lot of the character and folks' love of him/her just might make a lot of sense as you see this documentary and its weirdness might not make any sense. Don't say I didn't warn you!!
This film is currently available streaming through Netflix as well as for sale from many sources including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
As far as biographical documentaries go, I Am Divine was pretty standard, starting at the beginning of Divine/Glenn Milstead's life and concluding at its end. There usage of archival footage of Divine both in and out of costume was excellent, while the interviews of his close friends and family were very thorough. I found that the talking heads, rather than being too distracting, served to really painted a comprehensive picture of who Divine was. Though the documentary did touch on the issues that Divine faced throughout his life, such as his initial financial struggles, I would have liked to see the movie address them with more depth. However, on the other hand, I think that it's pretty understandable because I Am Divine was clearly meant to be a celebration of an influential figure's life.
I'm glad that I watched this movie. I learned quite a lot about someone who turned out to be enormously influential. Divine had huge hand in shaping current-day drag culture from the prim, debonair queens of the 50s-60s to the loud and colorful drag performers we are familiar with today. I would have loved to see them explore Divine's contemporary impact more in the movie, but alas. I Am Divine could have so easily veered into something that was offensive and mocking, but it stayed so respectful to Divine and who he was as a person. Watch this movie!!
Years ago I was never a hardcore Divine fan. Not because I disliked him. I just didn't venture down the path of counter culture. I vaguely recall glimpses and was somewhat interested. Then thanks to tremendously more age, slightly less ignorance, and Frys Electronics' vast DVD and Blu-Ray inventory, I recently got "Pink Flamingos." I became a fan instantly appreciating the counter-culture scope of Divine's performance. I appreciated the risks he and John Waters took considering a somewhat conservative time. Every one of the cast's performance was way ahead of society's acceptable norms as well. I enjoyed it enough to watch all the "behind the scenes" additional commentary provided by John Waters. Now enlightened, I put "Female Troubles," Polyester," "Lust in the Dust," "Trouble in Mind," and "Hairspray" on my wish list. I'm glad I didn't get them yet because my palate is better prepared and cleansed now to enjoy these features with this documentary. In fact, if you haven't seen these previous John Waters/Divine projects, I'm strongly suggesting this documentary as a necessary precursor. That is, if you're the type of patron who feels that knowing an actor's bio can enhance this enjoyment so much more (or less).
In "I Am Divine" - It sure seemed to me that just about everyone (and their dog) who ever met Divine came out of the closet to gush over him and paint an almost unrealistic picture of this entertainer who (though he had a real foul mouth) was, in reality, as adorable (and harmless) as a Care Bear.
To say that Milstead (born 1945) played the Divine character to the absolute hilt would be a total understatement. But one could easily tell that as he matured into his 30's, the thrill of constantly reinventing this in-your-face persona clearly began to wane.
I think it's the ultimate irony-of-ironies that, as an actor, Glenn really only played the role of a man once in his lifetime (as Hilly Blue in 1985's Trouble In Mind). And when he finally did achieve respectability as an actor, he up and died, at 42, from a massive heart attack.
All-in-all - I'd say that under all of that mascara and over-the-top behaviour, Glenn Milstead was probably an alright guy with irritating idiosyncrasies just like everyone else.
The film has a bit of television show feel about it. For my personal liking, there are too many clips from the Waters films, that Divine fans have probably seen a hundred times over. It takes up precious time that could have been dedicated to revealing something so far not seen or known about Divine. Everything is of course spiralling towards the "eat dog poo on camera" landmark moment. And of course, all credit for this "master stroke of genius" goes towards Waters (biased very much).
I was very much expecting the singing career part of Divine to be elaborated upon, as to me it was her natural progression from her film work, where her Drag persona was further polished. But that part of her life is severely neglected in this documentary. In Europe, Divine is more so known for her music than her films. Her television performances on pop chart shows were on a par with some of the best of 80s music videos (dare I say far superior to the Waters movies). But there is not much evidence of that in this documentary.
Probably there was only enough money to pay for the Waters camp to have a natter about the film years, and it's a wrap. Ready for the LGBT film festival circuit, and ready to be applauded by all the gullible fools who merely need an easy saccharine nostalgia fix. That's the unsatisfied feeling I was left with after watching it.
For the most part - This decidedly dead-end documentary (about a 350 lb, horror-show hippo) scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel in its pathetic attempt to be a cheery, little piece of informative and enlightening entertainment.
To be honest - I really don't know why the heck I even bothered, in the first place, to watch this heap of crap about the "Queen of Filth" - 'Cause now that I have, I totally regret that I did.