Divine shot to fame in the late seventies thanks to the bizarre directorial demands of John Waters and his cult cinema classic Pink Flamingos (1978). After consuming a heap of freshly produced dog faeces on camera, she turned the collective stomach of a worldwide audience and became the talking point she always strived to be. However, years down the line all anyone wanted to talk about was dog mess and misconceived transvestism. Neither of the two had any relevance in the furthered career of Harris Glenn Milstead, the man behind the eye make-up – a character-actor who strived to be taken seriously in his profession, but just as Hollywood studios began to open their hearts to him, his stopped beating.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine (2013) finally tells the side of the story that the legendary performing artist always longed to tell. From his humble beginnings in Baltimore, Milstead was the target of many a bully. Always effeminate and overweight, he eventually found what he thought was his calling in hairdressing, with his parents even investing in a salon. Then came the day he hooked up with a team of liberal young party monsters led by John Waters. Soon he was drawn into drugs and a lifestyle that his parents were more than unable to accept. Bonding over the films of Jane Mansfield and Russ Meyer, Waters – a young filmmaker at the time – persuaded his friend to dress up in drag and emulate the sexuality of fifties stars. Baltimore’s very own Mansfield then emerged in the form of Divine, a rambunctious, plus-sized sex-bomb, with a bad attitude and a very dirty mouth.
With a few underground movies under his belt, Waters was able to make an after midnight-movie that propelled his protégé to international stardom. From his tough childhood to the phenomenal mainstream success of Hairspray (1988), Milstead’s life story is told here by the people that knew him best and loved him the most. Providing valuable insight into the filthy world of John Waters and co, Schwarz draws together interviews old and new and showcases some of the most entertaining scenes from Divine’s garishly fabulous filmography to create a touching portrait of a young man who strived for acceptance. Milstead’s intriguing transformation from hairdresser to movie star came during a period in time when homosexuality was illegal. As Waters himself puts it, it made their lifestyle more exciting.
Schwarz’s documentary, follows this optimistic vein, never dwelling on moments of sadness or hardship. The emphasis here is the cheap smell of success and the huge, never-ending celebration that followed it. Divine, Waters, Mink Stole and other key figures from the Baltimore scene, make up the Dreamland collective. Each talking-head gives a personal account of Divine and every tale is affectionately told by one compelling character after the other. These deliciously entertaining stories add colour and great precision to Schwarz’s terrifically detailed portrait. Archive advertisements and newsreel footage add valuable perspective to the team’s innovative and advanced ambitions particularly when juxtaposed with revelatory behind-the-scenes moments. Like Warhol’s Factory inhabitants, Baltimore’s creative posse have similar passion for artistry but without the egotistical pretensions.
The stories of Schwarz’s subjects are divulged with impassioned potency, ensuring that this gripping documentary is far removed from tearful memoriam territory. Aside from some genuinely heart-wrenching scenes involving his once estranged mother, I Am Divine is a thoroughly optimistic and exuberant celebration of life that quashes any myths about transvestism and reveals a side to the icon, that had been previously unseen. A warm, touching and often hilarious documentary from Schwarz, who, through meticulous editing, reunites the Dreamlanders with their most illustrious member and finally gives Milstead the voice, albeit posthumously, to tell his own celestial story.