I AM DIVINE will be a definitive biographical portrait of Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine, and will honor him in just the way he always craved—as a serious artist and immortal star. We’ll tell Divine’s entire story, from his early days as a misfit youth in Baltimore through his rise to infamy as a cult superstar. Like the characters he portrayed in numerous films, Divine was the ultimate outsider. He transformed himself from a bullied schoolyard fat kid to a larger-than-life personality and underdog royalty as his alter-ego Divine. Divine stood up for millions of gay men and women, female impersonators, punk rockers, the ample figured, and countless other socially ostracized people. With a completely committed in-your-face style, he blurred the line between performer and personality and revolutionized pop culture.
As outrageous and fun as its subject, I AM DIVINE will combine movie clips, rare home movies and photos, television appearances and live performance footage with brand new interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto, Bruce Vilanch, mother Frances Milstead (who provided her final interview just months before she passed away), and many more of Divine’s family, friends, colleagues, and devotees. (Official site)
“What an amazing movie. It far exceeded my expectations and didn’t descend into sentimentality. The film explores the highs and lows of one of the top icons of America’s underbelly. Divine and John Waters met as teenagers and soon started making cult classics including Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho. As Divine — sorry. spoiler alert — died he was on the cusp of hitting the big-time. My only niggle about this laugh- out loud feel-good documentary was how much of the film focused on his eating. We know he was fat and we know he died of a heart attack ahead of his time. Sometimes though the film veered off the celebration of a man who was a beacon for all outsiders and an under-rated actor and verged on ridiculing its subject. Despite that, this is a great film. It had the audience entranced and laughing from the start it was informative for all but the most dedicated Divine devotee. I’m ready to pre order the DVD now.” (Zeborah Zeboratious, Imdb)
“…The new documentary, I Am Divine, opening at South by Southwest Film Festival and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, tells the story of Divine’s life, and shows the evolution of both Divine the character and Divine the person. (Note: I will be using both male and female pronouns in this review as Divine the character was female, but Divine the person was a man, and preferred to do interviews out of character.)
Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore in 1945. A shy fat kid, he got bullied in school and thus mostly kept to himself. His pediatrician told his mother that he had more female traits than male, and his mother despaired of—but loved—her effeminate son. (When he later came out as gay, that love became not so unconditional for a while.) He started dressing hair, and might have ended up living a fun, but closeted, existence in Baltimore’s underground gay scene. However, two things happened to change all that: he discovered drag and met aspiring filmmaker John Waters. The two formed a working relationship where Glenn, whose movie drag character Divine (he later would take the name himself), would become Waters’s greatest inspiration, and Waters would encourage Divine to become more and more outrageous. As Waters’s films became successful, Divine received opportunities to perform outside of Baltimore—moving to San Francisco to do stage shows with The Cockettes, and later relocating to New York to start a successful recording career. Other opportunities followed, including starring in a non-Waters movie, Lust in the Dust. The mainstream success of 1988’s Hairspray allowed Divine to attract other types of roles, and a male part was written for him on the sitcom Married With Children. The night before he was to begin filming, he died of a heart attack in his motel room.
I really like biographical documentaries, but when they are over, I don’t usually burst into tears of joy about what a wonderful, life-affirming film I have just seen. Which I may or may not have done with I Am Divine. I’ll admit I was having a hard day, but that doesn’t really explain why I experienced such a catharsis at the end of this film. You know that part of the teen movie, where the bullied protagonist stands up to the mean kid, and everybody cheers? And you kind of feel like cheering, but you also feel a little like you were emotionally blackmailed to do so because everything unfolded according to well-worn conventions? That’s not how I felt here, because Divine is never viewed as a victim. Sure, some crappy-ass stuff happened in his life, but that kind of stuff happens to a lot of us. Divine is portrayed in this movie as a flawed person who works really hard, finds success, and dies much sooner than he ought to have. This Divine is not a tragic gay character. He is a triumphant protagonist, who gets success because he works really hard, behaves professionally, and is a good friend to the people he meets along the way. Anybody who has ever felt like a freak—for whatever reason—needs to see this movie. This is not a heartwarming story about overcoming adversity; it’s about a Freak being successful because being a freak is way better when you just give in to it.
I don’t want to give people the idea that this is some kind of hippy dippy lovefest where people only talk about the best parts about Divine. He was a huge stoner, spent way too much money (a lot of it on gifts for his friends), ate too much junk food, and never exercised. There was an unhappy period of his life where he was estranged from his parents, and he was often depressed about being typecast in the Divine role. This is a straightforward documentary that not only gives the details of Divine’s life, but also features a lot of information on John Waters’s films, and how the two men worked together. It’s really interesting, and paints a loving but honest portrait of a complicated person. This is an adult movie that talks about adult stuff like sex and drugs, but if there is a teenage person in your life who is having a hard time coming to terms with their own inner freak, I think this would be a great movie to show how someone can end up on top by embracing who they really are.” (Adelaide Blair, macguffinpodcast.com)
Young, chubby Harris Glenn Milstead liked musicals, was drawn to feminine pursuits, and was bullied. He was privately playing “dress-up games” in his mother’s clothes. By 1963, Glenn was brave enough to show up at a party with his then girlfriend dressed as an astonishingly passable Elizabeth Taylor, among the many glamorous stars he openly idolized.
After meeting a crowd of gay hipsters and freaks. Glenn started camping it up, shoplifting, writing bad checks, and smoking grass. Glenn also met the man who was about to change his life – John Waters. Like Glenn, Waters was obsessed with movies and they bonded over the films of Russ Meyer and Jayne Mansfield. They began to forge a new character, one which mocked the conventional “pretty” drag queens that aspired to look as real as possible. With Waters’ encouragement, this character started to emerge. She was outrageous, outlandish and obviously overweight. Glenn’s wicked, rebellious side matched the sensibilities of Waters, and John christened his new star “Divine” and they started making films together.
Eat Your Makeup (1967) featured Glenn as Jackie Kennedy in a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination. Mondo Trasho (1969) features Divine as a busty, blonde bombshell trashing around town. In Multiple Maniacs (1970), Divine plays a homicidal criminal who goes on a killing spree and is raped by a giant lobster. His persona became increasingly outrageous, as though Waters knew he was providing a way for Glenn to channel his anti-establishment rage.
When the San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes got wind of Divine and John Waters, they flew them both out for a command performance. For the trip, make-up artist Van Smith shaved Divine’s head giving him plenty of space for those signature eyebrows that would become his iconic look. After being greeted with open arms by mobs of fans, Glenn made a clean break from his past and decided to live his life as Divine.
Pink Flamingos (1972), firmly launched Divine as an underground sensation. Because its plot concerns a competition for “the filthiest people alive,” it made sense that Divine would become the filthiest actress alive. John talked Divine into eating dog poop as the capper to all the mayhem, and the film became a midnight movie blockbuster. It made Divine famous, and as a publicity stunt succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
Female Trouble (1974) followed, where Divine played the insane Dawn Davenport. It featured scenes ripped from Divine’s past, as Dawn leaves home after trashing her family’s Christmas tree. Divine’s shocking visage began to appear on punk rock t-shirts, and his influence began to be felt in that grungy world.
Despite the films’ success, Divine wanted legitimacy beyond his shit-eating grin. His theater career began in New York when he appeared in Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman. Divine’s ability to command a stage proved that he could have a career outside of John Waters movies. He was beginning to live the life of the international celebrity he always wanted to be, and joined the ranks of the beautiful people that partied at Studio 54.
Divine was looking for a way to supplement his income, and with the help of business manager Bernard Jay, found just the solution – becoming a disco diva. After recording a series of successful dance singles, Divine went on a whirlwind tour of discos around the world. Though filled with creative output, these years were extremely difficult in a personal way. Underground theater and disco didn’t pay well, and his chronic overspending continued. This meant a seemingly endless stream of exhausting appearances that began to take a toll on his health.
For their next collaboration, John and Divine decided it was time for an image change in the form of Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981). Divine would star alongside his teenage idol, Tab Hunter. For Divine, this was a legitimizing experience, and he delivered a tour-de-force performance as a long-suffering housewife. Tab Hunter loved working with Divine so much that he sought him out to co-star with him in Lust in the Dust (1985), a parody of Spaghetti westerns. Divine, ever the trouper, learned how to ride a donkey and worked in sweltering desert heat. His co-stars remember a serious devotion to his craft, and a desire not to let anyone down.
By this point, the persona of Divine had taken a firm hold, but Divine desired legitimacy as a character actor, and to play male roles. Memories of eating shit on a street in Baltimore and his larger than life persona made this nearly unattainable. But years of increased interest in John Waters led to the film that put him on the mainstream pop culture map. Hairspray was a loving flashback to the early 60s that dealt with race relations and outsider triumph. The lead role of teenaged Tracy Turnblad was one that Divine coveted, but understood that it would have been a stretch for the audience to believe him in the role. Tracy was played by newcomer Ricki Lake, and the two formed a loving almost maternal friendship.
Rave reviews for Hairspray gave him the praise he always craved and it looked like he might realize his dream of becoming a working character actor – a star and a legitimate performer in one. Riding high on the reception of Hairspray, Divine was cast on the hit show, Married With Children. The night before the shoot, Divine went to his hotel room, studied his script, and died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He joined the ranks of artists tragically taken from us at the peak of their career.
I Am Divine is a story about a man who fought against what society considers conventionally beautiful. It’s about addiction. It’s about fame. It’s about the quest for the spotlight and artistic respect. Divine’s complete commitment to being and expressing himself perhaps did more to promote notions of freedom and acceptance than he knew. He certainly paved the way for legions of misfits to come. (Official site)