Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Cast: Divine, John Waters
Watch I Am Divine online in the UK: Netflix UK / BFI Player+ / TalkTalk TV / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Initially, it seems like a missed opportunity for an artist as extraordinary as Divine to get a documentary as conventional as I Am Divine – yet, really, would anybody believe the life that the artist born as Harris Glenn Milstead had? Raised in conformist post-war America, Milstead’s homosexuality and obesity made him a target for bullies, yet somehow he found kindred spirits in Baltimore, dragged up, and created a one-(wo)man cultural revolution encompassing cinema, stand-up, fashion and music.
This writer can attest to the power and brilliance of Divine. When I was a teenager, a friend lent me a pile of video tapes to watch directed by king of camp John Waters. All bar one starred Divine, Waters’ muse. At the time, I considered myself a connoisseur of cult, a disciple of Alex Cox’s Moviedrome (where I’d first learned of Waters via his later, less subversive Cry-Baby). Yet I knew nothing, for nothing had prepared me for the sustained blast of transgressive, anarchic brilliance of Waters’ and Divine’s films together, especially the provocative Pink Flamingos: a defining moment in realising what cinema could be.
The films Divine made with John Waters still shock today – anybody who claims they can watch the infamous “Divine eats dog poo” ending to Pink Flamingos without gagging, is lying – but there’s an energy, caustic wit and charisma to Divine even when her characters are invariably homicidal and filth-obsessed. As one observer wisely in Jeffrey Schwarz’s lovingly assembled doc notes, “you could only see her after midnight but she was worth staying up for”.
Yet, what people saw on-screen was an act. That much seems obvious – the exaggerated eye make-up, shaved hairline and preposterous costumes make Divine one of cinema’s most recognisable icons. The personality was an act, too. In real life, Divine was, by all accounts, a sweetie. The first rule of any documentary is to see who the director has persuaded to be interviewed; here, it is pretty much everybody still alive, from Waters to “Glenn’s” high-school sweetheart. Nobody has a bad word to say about him. (Interviewees vary on “him” or “her,” but Divine was adamant he wasn’t transsexual; he was just brilliant at playing female roles.)
That makes the documentary a cosy affair (revealingly, it avoids the 18 certificate of Divine’s defining films) but perhaps that’s essential in opening eyes to the reality of being an underground artist. The community Waters created to make his film – the “Dreamlanders” – is one of the great filmmaking gangs (they were simply out to have fun and that quality is infectious, however shocking the results) and they all wanted their star to ascend to the mainstream. That, ultimately, is all Divine wanted; he was a man who had found his calling and wanted merely to be acclaimed for it.
The insider accounts offer an intriguing perspective on how Divine did eventually become an institution – the false dawns, the distrust, the compromises. Well-chosen clips from the talk show circuit highlight the rampant patronisation he had to endure. Divine was both a cult and a star and the tension is palpable between becoming the biggest fish in the LGBT pool, and wanting to reach a wider audience without necessarily having to sacrifice his ‘leading lady’ status.
So there’s an irony in Schwarz making his doc so accessible: the ultimate act of assimilation. Divine’s journey provides a fascinating insight into co-opting the counter-culture into the mainstream; even as he was enjoying a second career as a disco diva, The Sun was calling for him to be banned from television after a belly-wobbling performance on Top Of The Pops. And then came Hairspray, widespread acceptance and the potential of a bright new future… until it was sadly, suddenly curtailed.
The longer it goes on, the simpler Schwarz’s style becomes; a vague attempt at an irreverent, Python-esque animation gives way to talking heads and archive footage. This suggests a film that was going to be more outré until the edit revealed it had to be as sincere as its subject was in real life. Leave the outrage to Pink Flamingos; the biggest asset of Schwarz’s film is to remind that, however controversial the public mask, it’s what is behind it that matters. During the doc, friends talk of their dismay at acquaintances being worried about inviting Divine to dinner, fearing he would “shit on the table”; if nothing else, I Am Divine serves to place Divine at the top of your fantasy dinner party guest list.
I Am Divine is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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