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AUSTIN — Young moviegoers who know Divine as the gross-out diva of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble likely have no idea that the extravagant drag performer did much more in his short career than eat dog excrement for the King of Sleaze; even viewers who remember his moment of stardom may not know how much more was on tap when he died at 42 in 1988. Both groups will get something out of Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine, an enjoyably naughty trip through Divine’s career that happily makes time to introduce us to Glenn Milstead, the sweet kid and fledgling hairdresser who transformed himself so daringly.
Little Glenn’s mother, Frances Milstead (who was interviewed before her death in 2009) gets plenty of screen time here, recalling the day a pediatrician reported that her “good little baby” who loved Sunday school had more feminine than masculine in him. Still, he maintained a pretty straight-laced persona in high school, even if, as his girlfriend of six years recalls, he insisted on doing her hair and makeup for prom.
Six doors down the road from the Milsteads was young John Waters. The two met at 17, quickly forming the large clique that would become Dreamland Productions, doing lots of drugs together and making films in which, for example, a drag-wearing Glenn (already dubbed Divine by Waters) made fun of Jackie Kennedy while the horror of JFK‘s assassination was still fresh in the nation’s mind.
Somewhere in here, Frances Milstead recalls, her son came clean about his hidden sex life and other transgressions. She says with regret that she told him to “forget you have a mother and father.” (They reconciled happily years later.) The persona of Glenn was put to rest, and during an airplane ride to San Francisco, where he was to perform with the infamous drag troupe The Cockettes, makeup artist Van Smith shaved Glenn’s hairline halfway back his head — creating a canvas for the hyperbolic eye makeup that would become the definitive Divine look.
Divine was a hit in SF, and his success (interviewees are split between using the male and female pronoun, but most choose the former) grew after moving to New York and starring in small plays and revues. Then came disco stardom, where a lousy singing voice did little to discourage the largely gay audiences who ate up material like “You Think You’re a Man.” Friends and colleagues remember a performer who was reveling in his encounters with celebrities like Andy Warhol, spending money on those close to him with abandon and enjoying long, happy relationships with surprisingly good-looking men. He was having a great time, even if “the persona was a heavy burden.”
With the premiere of Hairspray, in which his acting drew good notices from mainstream critics, Divine began to see the viability of an acting career beyond drag. He booked a guest slot on Married … With Children that was envisioned as a continuing role, gave up pot and looked to be turning the corner on unhealthy habits. But the night before shooting on the episode began, he died in his bed. Friend and manager Bernard Jay has said he “died of happiness” — a shocking verdict if all one knew was the angry, insult-spewing “cinematic terrorist” of the early Waters films, but one backed up by this affectionate portrait.
Production Company: Automat Pictures
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Producers: Jeffrey Schwarz, Lance Robertson, Lotti Pharriss Knowles, Jon Glover
Music: Michael “The Millionaire” Cudahy
Editor: Philip J. Bartell
No rating, 89 minutes
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