Wednesday, 27 March 2013

I am Divine (2013)

Once upon a time in suburban Baltimore there lived an overweight, slightly effeminate, and bullied teenager called Harris Glenn Milstead. He tried to fit in with the high school crowd and even had a long-term sort-of girlfriend. Then one day they went to a costume party together and his leanings became evident when he dressed up as one of his idols -- a rather reasonable facsimile of Elizabeth Taylor. Things were about to change for young Glenn as down the street lived a wannabe filmmaker called John Waters, who was also obsessed with trashy movies -- the combined works of Jayne Mansfield and Russ Meyer. Together with other local gay hipsters and 'freaks' they began a guerilla film-making career and Waters christened his new pal Divine. First was "Eat Your Makeup" (1967) with Divine as Jackie Kennedy in a re-enactment of the Dallas assassination. This was followed by "Mondo Trasho" (1969) where his star's busty blonde persona trashed the town and "Multiple Maniacs" (1970) where Divine's homicidal psychopath ends up raped by a giant lobster (!).  What fun they had and what a way to strike back at the establishment that had rejected him.

Divine's trademark look of shaved forehead and massive eyebrows was created for him by the San Francisco drag troupe, The Cockettes, and this strange persona finally entered the public consciousness when he starred in Waters' "Pink Flamingos" (1972) with its infamous doggy-poop eating scene. Their next joint feature was 1974's "Female Trouble" and the pair's fame began to attract straight fans as well.  Divine wanted even more and appeared on the New York stage in two drag extravaganzas, before morphing into a disco diva, issuing a series of dance singles and touring the world with his outrageous persona. Lady Gaga is an over-dressed schoolgirl in comparison. However, constant money problems created by his continuous and generous overspending and health problems created by his continuous overeating as his weight ballooned, began to take their toll.  He and Waters reunited for "Polyester" (1981) where he starred alongside one of his teenaged crushes, the now slightly has-been Tab Hunter. "How do you feel about kissing a 300-pound transvestite?" the actor was asked, but they got along famously and reunited for l985's "Lust in the Dust".  

Divine's final collaboration with Waters "Hairspray" introduced him to the mainstream and Glenn was never happier, even making amends with the family who had previously disowned him. However the fairy tale (no pun intended) did not have a happy ending. Divine never thought of himself as a drag queen but as a male character actor who excelled in over-the-top female roles, and he really craved legitimacy an actor. He did appear in one film as a man, "Out of the Dark" (1988), where he played a slightly camp police detective. His agent had managed to secure him a recurring role in the hit TV series "Married...with Children" and he was over the moon. Filming was to begin on a Monday morning and Divine celebrated at a local Los Angeles hotel, ready for his new triumph, when he died of a massive heart attack, aged 42. What a loss for what might have been.

The director of this documentary Jeffrey Schwarz previously directed "Vito", a biography of Vito Russo, a leading light in the gay liberation movement. Here he has brought together a wide variety of talking heads (of all stripes) who shed light on the phenomenon that was Divine -- a man who proved to the world that you can be whatever you want to be, a man who transcended conventional notions of beauty and taste. The end credits of the film list name after name of persons thanked for the production, since apparently Schwarz partially financed the film via a website where fans were urged to contribute. He eventually raised $38,574 of the budgeted $100,000 cost by this means (I have no idea where the balance of the funds came from) and the 844 donors are credited as Criminals ($5), Shitkickers ($10), Perverts ($25), Maniacs ($50), Jezebels ($100), Hairhoppers ($250), and Chubbychasers ($1000). There were categories for larger contributions which included Chicken Queen, Miss Thing, Glamorpuss, Filthmonger, and finally God, but none of these were subscribed.

Schwarz is to be commended for bringing the life of this now unsung hero of gay fulfillment to a new generation who did not grow up with him and for reminding those of us who remember him well what a remarkable personality he was. The director is currently working on a documentary of co-star Tab Hunter, who was rumoured to be one of Hollywood's then-hidden gays, and that should be another documentary well worth seeking out if "I am Divine" is an example of his informative, enjoyable, and ultimately moving approach.
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