In 1972, the world came to know Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) as the “Filthiest Person Alive.” Pink Flamingos, the breakthrough film for both John Waters and his drag queen muse, proclaimed both Divine the fictional character and Divine the star as the world’s most fabulous criminal. Raunchy, confrontational, anarchic and entirely independent, it catapulted them to fame. Four decades later, the best known image of Divine’s career is still the charmingly revolting epilogue, in which he defends his “Filthiest” title by actually ingesting dog feces. Yet there is so much more to this story, two whole decades worth of arresting, often overwhelming sounds and images.
As is often the case with cult icons, the breadth of Divine’s career has fallen by the wayside in the popular imagination. Documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has set out to change this with his newest film, I Am Divine. It begins and ends with the Baltimore glitz of the premiere of Hairspray in 1988, an instant hit that should have signaled a new and exciting breakthrough in Divine’s career. Yet he died suddenly, very soon afterward. This horrendously timed tragedy highlights a tension, between cult notoriety and mainstream appreciation, which becomes a touchstone of Schwarz’s film that returns again and again.
Divine’s story begins as the story of Glenn Milstead, growing up in a suburb of Baltimore in the buttoned-up 1950s. Schwarz’s interview with his mother is one of the most significant of the documentary, evidence of a long-troubled family relationship that would finally settle after Divine’s rise to fame. In the mid-1960s he began making films with John Waters and performing in drag. The documentary is at its best when showing the community that arose out of Waters’s Dreamland Productions, and not just because Waters himself is such a good interview. Mink Stole, Susan Walsh, Ricki Lake and non-Dreamlanders like Holly Woodlawn and Tab Hunter glimmer with love for Divine and tell some great stories. The sheer number of people who knew, admired and adored Divine the performer and Milstead the man is almost overwhelming.
Yet one can only go so far with such admiration from the leading figures of a counterculture. And while Divine ruled the world of underground theater and film in the 1970s, he always wanted more. Pink Flamingos was a major success but remained within a somewhat cult context. Divine’s struggle for a wider audience included a prolific musical career, the 1985 Western spoof film Lust in the Dust and an unfathomable amount of live performances. He didn’t want to be known as the drag queen that ate dog poop for his entire career and craved opportunities to reshape his persona or even to perform entirely without it, out of drag.
Schwarz does his best to capture this, the frustrating tension between cult fame as a drag queen and the mainstream media’s apparent inability to understand either his persona or his genuine identity. There are some painful clips of media appearances, Divine being forced to begin every interview by talking about Pink Flamingos and then explaining why he didn’t show up in a dress. Yet this particular element of his story, and what it can teach us about the limitations of queer fame, is only a small piece of Divine’s story. Schwarz chooses not to dwell on it too much, maintaining a wider focus that paints a fuller, if perhaps thinner, picture.
By the end of the film, when the narrative returns to the triumphant moment of Hairspray’s premiere and Divine’s abrupt death, much has been learned. I Am Divine’s biggest weakness is simply that not too much is made from the information, or the first-rate interview testimony assembled to present it. Some of the images of Divine in full regalia are revelations, others are oddly cut up and tossed into animations that distract rather than add to the story. The excessive glamour and legendary filth is unintentionally softened by Schwarz’s reliance on cheeky but conventional modes of sprucing up the style of a documentary.
That said, Divine shines through. The film itself may not have his style or his bombast, but it hardly needs it to bring the great performer to an audience. Fans of Divine and of Waters’ work will be delighted, and anyone else who catches it will want to dive right in to the diva’s gigantic body of work.
I Am Divine is now playing at Cinema Village in NYC