Pauline Kael, the great New Yorker film critic, once compared midnight movie star Divine to W.C. Fields in drag. It’s an apt description: both were outrageous, fat, and hilariously funny. Divine, however, was not simply a drag queen. Along with cinematic soul brother John Waters, they forged a new genre of comedy that was camp, subversive, and punk, back when Johnny Rotten was still in diapers. Finally, the actor born Harris Glenn Milstead gets the touching tribute he so deserves in the new documentary I Am Divine by director Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, Spine Tingler).
The movie has something to offer both the Divine dilettante and die-hard fan. Schwarz shows the whole rags-to-sequins saga, from when Waters and Milstead first created the Godzilla-in-heels Divine persona to later years when he was a dance music diva and character actor. There are heaps of unseen photos, an interview with high school girlfriend Diane, and rare footage of his turn as Jackie Kennedy in the JFK assassination scene from early Waters opus, Eat Your Makeup. Best of all: a bittersweet and regretful interview with his estranged mother Frances Milstead, who passed away in 2009, but did reconcile with her only son before he died.
In these days of panty-less, porn taping starlets, one forgets how twisted and subversive the John Waters characters were to American audiences—whether it’s the fashion-crazed serial killer Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble; loving mother Francine Fishpaw in Polyester; or glamorous co-prophiliac Babs Johnson of Pink Flamingos. Before he directed him to eat dog shit in the final scene of that infamous film, Waters recalls asking Divine: “Listen, do you want to be famous?” The gimmick worked, though he spent the rest of his life living that brown moment down. Divine may have been fearless, but for an icon who was anarchy personified. Schwarz goes to great lengths in I Am Divine to show how mild mannered Milstead really was. Off-camera and out of drag, the filthiest person alive comes off as kind and shy. Co-star Susan Lowe even refers to “Divvy” in the doc as a sort of Buddha.
One of life’s cruel ironies is how Divine was cut down at 42, in the prime of life. Riding high on the wave of great notices for his turn as Edna Turnbladt in Hairspray, he flew to Los Angeles to start filming a recurring role on Married With Children. In what comes off as a shocking revelation, we discover he died of a heart attack in his sleep the morning he was due on set! A bittersweet moment recalled in the doc is when Whoopi Goldberg sent flowers to the service with a card that read, “See what happens when you get good reviews?”
Divine remains an inspiration to outsiders everywhere. He took the very things that made him a freak in society—being gay and chubby—and made them into his trademark. He triumphed over his banal middle-class upbringing and cruel high school tormentors to became the self described “most beautiful woman in the world.” I am Divine is the long overdue valentine to a true queer pioneer.
I Am Divine opens Oct. 25 in New York City & Oct. 30 in L.A.
Watch the trailer below: