I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Maryland, just outside the city limits of Washington, D.C. But 30-40 minutes to the northwest was the harbor town of Baltimore, where I spent a great deal of time. It should come as no surprise that the films of John Waters made their way to the art house theaters of Georgetown quite often, including one weekend where the now-defunct Key Theatre hosted a Waters retrospective when I was in high school, and I managed to see all of his early works through POLYESTER, including some early shorts like THE DIANE LINKLETTER STORY. I was so impressed with the work of Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, that it never even occurred to me that this drag queen extraordinaire would do anything but love life to the fullest and be loved by all.
The new documentary I AM DIVINE pulls together the most complete portrait of Milstead and his struggles with weight, sexuality, and archaic definitions of beauty I've ever seen. Consider this a perfect companion piece to the 1998 Waters-centric doc DIVINE TRASH, and you'll start to see the complete picture of one of the most memorable and influential actor-director teams of their time.
Most of the greatest insight into Divine, not surprisingly, comes from Waters, but I also loved hearing from Milstead's mother (who passed away after her interviews for the film were conducted) and has a great deal of regret about how she and her late husband treated Glenn (as they called him) when he came out as a young man. And in an era when most drag queens could easily pass as women, Divine's size went counter to what was considered beautiful at the time, even for men dressing as glamourous women.
Waters takes us through the films one by one--MULTIPLE MANIACS, PINK FLAMINGOS, FEMALE TROUBLE, MONDO TRASHO, DESPERATE LIVING--but as Divine became more iconic, Glenn's emotional issues regarding his sexuality and love life became more intense. And without compromising on any part of his life, Divine became part of the mainstream and pop culture (when Andy Warhol want to meet and have his picture taken with you, you have arrived). I loved the stories about the creation of Divine's look, including shaving back his hairline to make room for those enormous, swooping, goddess-like eyebrows. Every aspect of Divine's appearance is delved into, each one more fascinating and revealing than the next.
A steady parade of friends, family and film historians are interviewed about the significance of Divine as a popular performer, whose list of accomplishments included one-woman shows, personal appearances, and booking an acting gig as a regular on "Married With Children." Sadly Glenn died on what was to have been his first day of work at age 42, after a lifetime of poor dieting habits and no exercise. Waters and the rest of his loved ones still tear up talking about that day, and I remember being shocked at the news myself, especially after Divine's supporting role in HAIRSPRAY was so well received (although Glenn was unhappy about being too old to play the lead, which went to Ricki Lake, who, after some resistance, became good friends with Glenn).
I AM DIVINE doesn't break too much ground as a documentary. Thankfully, the subject does all of that for us. Sure it's great to see Mink Stole and Holly Woodlawn back in the flesh chatting about Divine, but nothing takes the place of watching her perform as the queen of trash in Waters' films and go out in public in full regalia just to get a reaction. The film allows us to remember a great entertainer and a truly kind person who cherish everyone who accepted her as she was.