Unlike a lot of movie lovers who likely discovered the works of John Waters and his frequent star Divine (real name: Harris Glen Milstead) in college, I grew up in Maryland, not far from Baltimore, so I was mainlining Waters' films from about junior high--for better or worse. Despite all of the attempt at being disgusting and tasteless, I found all of their works together had a thread of charm running through them, and obviously the humor made the films all the more endearing.
But what I really remember about Divine's career and popularity is how both took off on their own, beyond her works with Waters. She was outrageous, sure, but she was also hilarious and was barely acquainted with the word "humiliation." And before long, this overweight transvestite was in danger of becoming America's sweetheart, something that probably didn't bother her too much.
I remember seeing and loving the 1998 documentary DIVINE TRASH, which was more about Waters, but clearly featured so much material on his collaborations with Divine. Now, after spending the better part of the year on the festival circuit, director Jeffrey Schwarz's insightful new doc I AM DIVINE gives us the proper life story of Glen/Divine, who passed away suddenly (and on the verge of a major career jump) in 1988 at the age of 42. And it's been slowly making its way across the country in a limited release, hopefully playing at your neighborhood art house soon.
I saw I AM DIVINE back in March, when it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, which is also where I sat down with Schwarz to talk about the cast of characters from the Waters' stable he got a chance to chat with (included some extended time with Waters) while making this touching tribute to one of the true mold busters and great entertainers of the 1970s and '80s.
Schwarz is actually one of the reigning producing and directing kings of DVD extras, and he has occasional stepped out to direction feature-length doc biopics, including 2007's SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORYl; WRANGLER: ANATOMY OF AN ICON (about gay porn star Jack Wrangler); VITO for HBO (about Vito Russo, founding father of the gay liberation movement and AIDS activist); and he's well into working on his next film, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, about the '50s-'60s teen heartthrob, who worked with both John Waters (POLYESTER) and Divine (LUST IN THE DUST). And with that, please enjoy my chat with Jeffrey Schwarz…
Capone: I grew up in Maryland until I was 18, so I was watching John Waters' movies when I was far too young. I remember this theater called the Key Theater in Georgetown, probably when I was around 16, did a Waters' mini-festival. It was eye opening and phenomenal. Had you met Divine at some point in your life?
JS: I had never met Divine. I got into this whole world of John Waters and Divine from reading John’s books first. I read "Shock Value" and "Crackpot" and all of the articles he was doing; this was in high school. So even before I saw the movies, I was very attracted to his sensibility, and he turned me on to so many things that I never even knew about. John Waters turned me on to William Castle, because he wrote an article about William Castle, and then that set me on a path to make a documentary about William Castle.
Capone: I’ve seen that movie. It’s great.
JS: Thank you very much. So he’s had such an impact on me in so many ways. Then I started following that path reading more and more about his films, and then I saw clips of them, first on "Night Flight'," and then eventually I went to college and fell into a group of people that were like-minded. When I was in high school, I wasn’t the kind of kid that was traipsing off to Manhattan to go to the midnight shows; I was very sheltered. It wasn’t until college, when HAIRSPRAY came out in '88, I remember hearing that Divine died, and I really very consciously remembering, “That fucking sucks.” He was at the height of his powers and he was being accepted by the mainstream for the first time, and I was conscious of this at the time.
Capone: I was too. I remember thinking “People aren’t calling calling him a drag queen or transvestite.” They aren’t putting clarifiers in front of the type of actor that she was, they just said “She was Divine. She’s awesome.”
JS: Exactly. So I began watching backwards from HAIRSPRAY; so I went from seeing the most “mainstream” John Waters film, which still had a subversive edge to it.
Capone: That was the first one you saw?
JS: The first one I saw was HAIRSPRAY, and then of course you have to go through this immersion period where you just want to see everything that he made. And this was when I was in film school, so he had a big influence on the kinds of films I was making too. I went back and watched PINK FLAMINGOS and FEMALE TROUBLE and POLYESTER and found bootlegs of the early movies. I was so attracted to the world that he created and the freedom that he gave somebody like Divine to create this character, and I was very touched by the fact that they were both high school oddballs who found each other.
Divine was bullied as a teenager, had a very hard time of it, was overweight, was effeminate. H didn’t have any direction. It wasn’t until he met John and these other oddballs in Baltimore that they started being creative together and started making movies together that he became more confident, and they developed this Divine character together and went on this incredible journey. They had no idea that it would lead them to making movies together. Divine certainly never thought that. He had always wanted to be a movie star, but he was a fat gay kid growing up in Baltimore, but he wanted to be the leading lady. How was that ever going to happen? It did end up happening. So I find that so touching and inspiring knowing that dreams can come true.
Capone: I don’t remember this for sure, but I’m guessing Divine was the first drag queen that I ever saw in any context. It never occurred to me that even in that community he was not accepted because of his weight. With very few exceptions, drag was not a radical thing. At least in the drag world, the “mainstream,” which is still underground, the queens at the time, a lot of them wanted to appear like real women and they wanted to pass as real women. There were pockets of radical drag like The Cockettes in San Francisco, but the world that Divine entered into when he was first getting involved in drag and cross dressing, it was a very glamorous world, and the other queens that he saw wanted to look like Miss America and they wanted to be mainstream and they wanted to pass as beautiful, gorgeous, glamorous women, and he did try that.
There are early photos of him where he looks like Elizabeth Taylor, but then slowly--because he didn’t fit into that mold, because he was overweight, and because also he liked to push people’s buttons--he started dressing in clothes that were inappropriate for a person of his size. He got a lot more attention that way, and of course he craved the attention that he got when he was doing that, and that kind of lead to it getting more and more radical and more and more over the top and more hilarious, and that lead to John writing these great parts for him too.
Capone: Getting Divine’s mother to talk, that had to be huge. She has the saddest stories about how she and her husband rejected Glen initially when he came out to them, and that’s something I’ve never heard. How did you find her?
JS: That was so important, because that turned out to be the heart of the film. That has the most emotional resonance with people, because everybody has had conflicts with their family. Divine’s mother was probably the number one interview that I wanted to get, because I knew that she would be able to provide us with the emotional heart of the film. So the first phone call I made was to John Waters to talk to him about the idea of making this movie, and once I got him on board and got his blessing--from the Pope basically--he second phone call was to Frances Milstead [Divine's mother], who has since passed away.
Capone: Which is so sad.
JS: She was living in Florida. She lost her son, at that time it was more than 20 years ago. She went through a long period of mourning for him and anger about why Divine had to be taken away from her so soon. But she ended up finding a community of people who were around the age Divine would have been had he lived, a bunch of gay guys in Florida who adored her and loved her and took care of her and made every day a happy day for her. So I was able to connect with those guys and then talk to Frances about what I wanted to do and sent her some of my other films.
After she had gotten through this period where she was angry about what had happened and felt that she was robbed of her son, she realized that now after his death, so many people around the world loved him, admired him and were inspired by him. He made them feel it was okay to be who they were, to be themselves, and she realized that now Divine belonged to the world. Of course she missed him terribly, and it’s a tragic thing to lose a child, but she understood that he had gone further than she would ever have imagined, and they did go through a period where they were estranged. But ultimately, she did accept him and referred to him as Divine. There was about a 10-year period where they were estranged, but then when they got back together again when he came home for the first time, there was a sign that said “Welcome home Divine!”
So she accepted that this was who he was and that he was doing well in it, and he made people happy and he was happy with himself and his life. That’s very unusual too. Even early on, she accepted that he was different. In a time where any signs of effeminacy in kids was a no-no--and still today a lot of parents have trouble with it--she sensed that he was different from other boys, and she accepted it. Now getting raped by a lobster and eating shit, that’s a little bit more to accept [laughs], but ultimately she did accept that as being part of who he was.
Capone: How long after you talked to her did she pass away.
JS: It was a few years. So the sadness of this is that she didn’t get to see this film, but she knew that it was progressing and she knew it was moving forward, and she gave a really touching, wonderful, honest interview, and I’m so grateful that we were able to include her in the film.
Capone: Had you gone and learned as much as you could about Divine before you did these interviews, or did you let the interviews reveal the details and inform you?
JS: There was a lot that I already knew, just from reading everything I possibly could about his life and the biography that’s out there and the interviews that he did during his life and of course John’s work, but of course, there were things that I didn’t know. I knew that he had a high school girlfriend, of course, so I reached out to her and we did an interview. She blew my mind. I had no idea about these stories, and she was with him for like seven years, so she got to see the nice boy who was home at 10 o’clock every night and did his mother’s hair and would never do anything outrageous. She got to see the slow transition into him becoming a little bit more of a juvenile delinquent.
Capone: That story she tells about the Halloween party is great.
JS: Yeah. And she accepted it too. She loved him. She went out on a date with him to a costume party, and he didn’t tell her what he was going to dress as, and then he goes into this room and he comes out dressed to the nines as Elizabeth Taylor, but she didn’t even blink. She was like, “Oh, you look so pretty.” It didn’t even dawn on her or occur to her that he liked boys or that he was gay.
Capone: He had to have been nervous as hell to come out to her like that.
JS: How brave is that? That was probably his way of trying to share something with her that he didn’t feel that he could share, and she certainly was not part of the John Waters' crowd. She was much more of a “nice girl” and she didn’t really fit into that outsider, beatnik world of the kids. Like when Divine started smoking pot and dropping LSD, that was certainly not something he could share with her. So to answer your question, her story was not something that had been talked about or written about, and I was so happy and surprised to hear her take on all of that.
Capone: What was your favorite thing that you learned and wondered “How did I not know this?”
JS: I was really happy to hear about his love life, because a lot of people when they talk about him they say, “He was overweight and he was lonely and he was sad,” and there was part of that to him. On the other hand, he was very aggressive about what he wanted. If he thought someone was attractive, he would go for it, and sometimes he would be able to take somebody home. Probably one of the most surprising things was the relationship he had with Leo Ford, who was an '80s porn star; I never knew that before. That has never been talked about or written about.
When I interviewed Greg Gorman, the photographer who was friends with Divine, he was the one who introduced Divine to Leo Ford, who was a blonde California beauty in the William Higgins porn movies of the '80s. They had a relationship. I don’t know if I would call them boyfriends, but they certainly had a physical relationship, and they loved hanging out with each other. So I was really happy to hear that some of the stereotypes that I had heard about Divine’s private life were, to some extent true, but then to the other extent, not at all, like Pat Moran in the film says “He had one in every port.” [Laughs] I like that idea that he did have a sexual energy and he did get around, so I was happy to hear about that.
Capone: I noticed in looking over the things you’ve worked on over the years, you do a ton of DVD documentary extras, and actually you did one for HAIRSPRAY, the movie musical. Coincidence?
JS: That was part of the journey actually, because DVD extras, EPKs and working for the studios, that’s been my "day job” for many, many years, and the idea to do the documentary about Divine was inspired by working on the HAIRSPRAY remake DVD extras, because part of the extras was a long documentary about the entire journey of this HAIRSPRAY phenomena, from the Buddy Dean show, the real-life Baltimore TV show that inspired it, through the original movie, the musical, and the remake. My favorite part of doing that project was doing the section on the original movie, and we interviewed John of course and Ricki Lake and Pat Moran and a bunch of other people involved with the original movie. But of course the most touching section to me was the story about Divine. That’s where it all started, like “Wow, this little five-minute section about Divine should be an entire feature.” So the DVD extras have led me to some of my feature projects, too.
Capone: I eat well-made extras up, especially the behind-the-scenes stuff.
JS: I’m glad somebody is watching them. [laughs]
Capone: Where did that interest come from? Were you one of those people that grew up wanting to get behind the scenes?
JS: I’m a life-long movie fanatic and I love documentaries, so when I moved to Los Angeles, my dream was to make this William Castle documentary. I called Sony who owned most of the William Castle films--this was in the late '90s--and I said, “I would really love to make this documentary. Will you pay for it?” I was a little naïve at the time, but I did meet a guy there named Mike Stratford, who was running this new division of DVD content. This was a brand new format, so I was just in the right place at the right time, and he ended up hiring me to start producing DVD extras, and my first DVD extra was for THE TINGLER, the William Castle movie. I ended up doing like five William Castle titles and that lead to ultimately being able to do the features. So the DVD extras have been a very happy, long-running career that I just stumbled into. I got lucky to be at the right place. Now it’s not really possible to break into that field, because things have changed so much over the last decade.
Capone: I don’t know if it would have been mentioned in the extra about the history of HAIRSPRAY, but the idea that Divine would have been insanely jealous of Ricki Lake makes complete sense, because that was Divine's role. I love Ricki Lake’s take on it. I assume they became friends at some point…
JS: Oh yeah. They were friends. I think at a certain point, if John had made that movie maybe 10 years earlier, Divine would have played the mom and the daughter. That would have been hilarious. I would have loved to have seen that.
Capone: At the same time though, I think it was maybe Divine’s most important role just as an actor.
JS: Absolutely. It’s one of his best performances, and the character is so lovingly drawn. You know that he knew women like that in his life.
Capone: Again, it probably drove the drag queen crowd crazy: “Why would she allow herself to look like that?”
JS: People refer to Divine as a drag queen, but he never referred to himself as a drag queen. He was an actor who specialized in playing these female parts. I mean I don’t have a problem with the term, but I think he felt it was limiting to be called a drag queen. He certainly was capable of so much more and he did use the drag. That was his career. He created this character. When he wasn’t acting in movies, he went out on the circuit and he did perform.
Capone: To me, a drag queen is someone who performs on stage.
JS: Which he did do. That was really how he made his living for many years, because John didn’t make movies that often, and he didn’t make money from those movies really. It was capitalizing on his fame from the movies that led him to do the disco act, which kept him busy and employed for many years.
Capone: It might have been mentioned at the time when he died, but I did not remember that he was going to do that "Married with Children" thing. That’s fascinating. I think you said the character was going to be as a man, right?
JS: That’s what I heard. I’ve been told, and his agent told me this, it was out of drag. It was a male character; that’s what he wanted. He probably would have gone on to do female roles, but he really wanted to be able to perform as a man, and that was just starting to happen. He had done it in small ways in the Waters' films, like in FEMALE TROUBLE and HAIRSPRAY. But he was in TROBULE IN MIND, and that was his first supporting character role out of drag, and he was great. I know that would have happened for him. Getting "Married with Children" was, in a weird way, the pinnacle of success for him, because it was the most mainstream thing you can possibly do, appear on a top sitcom, and he was going to do that. It’s so sad. It was literally the night before he was going to be on the show that he passed away.
Capone: In a weird way, I don’t think the iconic-ness of Divine would have been the same if he had gone on for years acting as a man. I think that him dying when he did made Divine more timeless.
JS: Well it is. It’s hard to believe that just this week, it’s 25 years since he has passed away, which I could not believe when I did the math.
Capone: Now I feel old.
JS: Yeah, same here. Like so many stars who died before their time, they're frozen in our memory, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, people that are icons forever. With Divine, there was no period of decline, because he died so young. So who knows. He might have gone on to so many other things. Who knows what would have happened. But to have him kind of frozen in time at that moment, it fucking sucks that he died, but he died with a smile on his face. He went to bed that night knowing that all of those years of working so hard and not being appreciated the way he should have been, that finally that was starting to happen. He went to bed with a smile on his face and didn’t wake up. It fucking sucks, but it’s not the worst thing in the world in terms of history.
Capone: You talk about the creation of the look and the shaving back of the hairline. How did you find those people? Was John still in touch with them?
JS: Well Van Smith was the guy who created the makeup look, and he was incredibly talented makeup artist, costume designer, was part of the early group in Baltimore, and he’s not longer with us, so I was not able to interview him. But I really wanted to make sure people understood that Van was so much a part of the creating of the character. People take it for granted that John developed the character with Divine, but the actual look was Van Smith. So it was like a superhero origin story, where the moment where the eyebrows get shaved and the hair gets shaved back, it was really a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Capone: I didn’t think John had much to do with the creation of that look.
JS: I’m sure he had input, and it developed over time, but it was really Van Smith who was the genius behind that.
Capone: I've grown to love that little Baltimore film community, I really do. What they came up with and how they came into their own and became popular is inspiring.
JS: It’s inspiring for younger people especially.
Capone: I don’t even know if it would be possible today to do it the way they did it.
JS: It’s a different world. There’s no real underground anymore. I just saw EVIL DEAD [remake] last night, and the guy who made that movie, he had made a short on YouTube, and that’s how he got discovered. There are so many people out there doing wild and wonderful things on the internet, and if John was starting out, if he were a 17 year old today, he’d be making YouTube videos.
Capone: I guess that’s the new underground, right.
JS: And those people aren’t making a dime off their work either. That’s how it started for John.
Capone: I had seen DIVINE TRASH in the late '90s, which was more about John, and your film is a perfect companion piece to that, since it fills in the other side of the partnership.
JS: Oh good. We used clips from DIVINE TRASH and also IN BAD TASTE by Steve Yeager. Some of the only behind-the-scenes footage of the making of those movies is by Steve.
Capone: I loved seeing LUST IN THE DUST featured in this movie.
JS: Yeah, we have a LUST IN THE DUST section. That was one of the starring roles that he did in drag without John. He’s great in that movie, and that was revealing, because you do get to see the effort that Divine put into doing his best on a movie. The circumstances of making that movie in the hot desert with his weight were so bad, they had to bring in oxygen tanks for him to work. So he really struggled during the making of that, and he wanted to do everything perfectly and he wanted to do everything right. The reason we wanted to include LUST IN THE DUST is to really show that effort that he put in. That was the most mainstream thing he had done to that point.
Capone: Jeffrey, thank you so much. It was great to meet you.
JS: I appreciate it. I loved talking to you. Thanks.