My parents have always loved John Waters. For reasons I can’t explain, my mom and dad were drawn to films like Female Trouble and Polyester. From a fairly young age, I knew who Divine was but the details of her movies were kept secret from me.
As a six-year-old, I found the taboo surrounding Divine to be incredibly alluring. Sneaking furtive glances at VHS envelopes for Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, Divine seemed like the stuff of nightmares. I was allowed to watch Halloween and Friday the 13th, but Pink Flamingos remained strictly off limits. It must be really scary, I remember thinking.
Even once I became old enough to appreciate John Water’s films, Divine still seemed like something verboten. She was deranged and psychotic—a weird, sexy, obese monster. So, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to review Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary, I Am Divine.
Schwarz’s film covers the life of Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) from his early childhood in conservative Baltimore through his rise to fame as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” As I watched the documentary unfold, all my opinions and preconceived notions about Divine slowly vanished. What Schwarz uncovers in his movie—or at least, what he illuminates—is how kind, quiet and generous Milstead was, despite his outrageous alter ego.
Through a series of interviews with former collaborators, friends and family, Schwarz helps paint a picture of an extraordinary boy who lived so far outside what was considered “normal,” he had no choice but to blaze his own trail.
The story of Divine is intertwined with the story of the Dreamlanders—Divine’s adopted family. This was a group of people who, like Divine, joined forces to create a safe space to express who they were without fear of judgement from the rest of the world. Warhol’s Factory did the same thing (Schwarz makes a number of allusions to Warhol), but where Warhol grew to resent his superstars, Waters, Divine, Mink Stole and the rest of them all seemed to genuinely like one another.
Before watching I am Divine, I expected the film to be a little like Factory Girl: a damaged muse in a drug-induced haze working for an aloof task master. Yet, watching Waters talk about Milstead—how respectful and supportive he was—it became quite clear that the two shared a real friendship. Schwarz’s interview with Milstead’s mother, Frances (who the movie is dedicated to), was also poignant. With all our progress, we still live in a time where homosexuality, queerness and the experience of the outsider is treated with fear. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to fight conformity in mid-century America. Yet Frances, for the most part, supported her son.
As The Real Housewives of Wherever has shown us, if you put crazy people in front of a camera, you can get some bizarre content. It would be easy to dismiss the Dreamlanders as just that: crazy. But they weren’t. They were rebels and dissidents, and the films they made, though silly and gross, were also astute political commentary.
I Am Divine leaves one with was a sense that all things are possible. After all, John Waters and Divine—without experience, without contacts, without money—accomplished what Hollywood continually fails to do. They created iconic, timeless movies that are as powerful now as they were in the 1970s.
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Starring: Divine, John Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Edith Massey
Release Date: April 8th, 2014