In 1998, independent director Steve Yeager chronicled the lifework of transgressive eccentric John Waters in Divine Trash. The documentary’s success manifested itself into a warranted trophy at that year’s Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary. Yeager comfortably capsuled the work of Waters’ subversive world and scrutinised the workings of his gregarious troop of deviants, the Dreamland crew. Amongst the director’s habitual go-to’s was the 300-pound transvestite accredited with the now lionised stage name, Divine. Of all of Waters’ malformed masterpieces, Divine – or Harris Glenn Milstead as she was christened – was the most schismatic, carnal and pivotal to the destruction of conformity.
Sixteen years later, director Jeffrey Schwarz has realigned Yeager’s focus from the pencil-tached creator to the volatile yet broken creation. I Am Divine (2013) gobs sugar over the smut and spice, generating a lingering taste of humour and heart as he narrates Milstead’s remarkable career as Divine. While reassessing what exactly is ‘poor taste’ and shedding brief yet affectionate light on that scene in which Divine devours a freshly brewed clump of dog faeces for Pink Flamingoes (1972), Schwarz rallies together the expected yet welcome troupe of living Dreamlanders to laud and rhapsodise over the young, misread drag-star. Waters muses with perennial facetiousness and wisecracks abound. Yet beyond the caked face and the plastic lobster rape scenes lies Schwarz’s most deeply sincere intentions.
Endeavouring to reveal “the man behind the make up”, we are met with a troubled, chunky misfit, demonised by his estranged parents. Forcibly segregated to the fringes of Baltimore, Milstead yearned for a stardom that stretched beyond his depression and turned a blind eye to his increasing weight problems. In a later scene, Divine is reconciled with his rather severe mother. That scene quite understandably let her down. There seems a droplet of guilt rarely captured so subtly on-screen, opening the debate of ‘Who is Divine? Who is Glenn Milstead?’. The closeness yet contrast of a misbehaving queen and a misunderstood boy is a truly stirring polarity that is never resolved. However, Schwarz refuses to concentrate so firmly on the negative. After all, our heroine wasn’t purely colourful.
Divine was the perverse palette that Waters could smudge his brush with and despite the suggestions of this alter-ego almost damaging Milstead’s reputation as a respectable actor, archival footage proves there was happiness and acceptance throughout her professional career. Two weeks following the release of Hairspray (1988), Milstead tragically died at the age of just 42. If nothing else, Schwarz’s I Am Divine is the authentication that the man who brought quarrels and dirt to the midnight movie scene had departed, but it was the wonderfully foul-mouthed bitch who refused to die.