SXSW Review: I Am Divine


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I don’t think John Waters would have reached the heights of cult status or mainstream acceptance without Glenn Milstead, aka Divine. Similarly, I don’t think Glenn Milstead would have led a happy or fulfilling life if he didn’t become friends with John Waters.

The director and his muse were meant for each other, and any cult film fan worth his or her salt can at least remember watching Pink Flamingos for the first time and retching at the finale: Divine eats a freshly laid dog turd. Or even the most absurd scene in the absurd Eat Your Makeup: Divine gets raped by a giant lobster.

But there was much more to Divine than just the outrageous costumes, the hairline, the fertility-figure physique, and the painted eyebrows that dominated his face. With the documentary I Am Divine, director Jeffrey Schwarz gives the actor his due and explores how a bullied kid from Baltimore eventually became a cult, camp, drag, and gay icon.

I Am Divine - Official Trailer

I Am Divine
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Rating: NR
Release Date: TBD

Going into I Am Divine, I was a little familiar with Milstead’s life. Some of it’s covered in the documentary Divine Trash, and I’d read profiles on John Waters that inevitably have to mention Divine as well. But Divine was generally the secondary focus of those even if he was an (or the) essential player in Dreamland Productions, the crew of outsiders and misfits who appeared in many Waters films. In addition to Divine, this merry band of outlaws included Mink Stole, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller, and Mary Vivian Pearce.

What’s clear about Dreamland in this documentary is that it became Divine’s family during his later teenage years and much of his adult life. After meeting Waters and building a posse of rowdy friends, Milstead went from a chubby boy with a sweet girlfriend to a shoplifting gay juvenile delinquent who dressed in drag. It’s like all those moralizing anti-drug, anti-misdeed melodramas of the 1950s (the sorts of things that Dreamland drew on for inspiration) come to life: My Son Wears Hosiery, My Boy is a Man Lover, The Return of Reefer Madness, The Unholy Terror of the Fast Crowd.

My own camp take on this shouldn’t downplay the real-life sadness of what happened. When Milstead came out to his family, it caused a rift between him and his parents. He left home in the late 1960s, which was the last time he’d see of them for many years. In this portrait of Milstead’s life, Scwarz is able to also explore the difficulties of being gay during a less open and accepting era. Waters, who’s one of the many interviewees in the film, notes that there was an underground gay scene in Baltimore at the time, but nothing anyone talked about in the open. In proper Waters fashion, he adds with a smile that the underground gay scene was more fun.

We progress chronologically through Divine’s life, taking little hops into the Waters movies that made him an unforgettable cult figure. What’s surprising is that for all the flamboyance, Milstead’s eventual christening as Divine was low key, but then again, the name was so perfectly ironic and yet true that there was no need for ceremony — of course Milstead was Divine, and he couldn’t be otherwise. The eventual look of Divinity evolved from film to film, eventually reaching iconic status on Pink Flamingos via makeup artist Van Smith.

What’s interesting for me as someone who knew only the basics about Divine is to see how much of a celeb and icon he became in his own time. I’d always assumed he was just a cult misfit, but he was really a cult misfit out in the mainstream. Catapulted by the sensation of those Waters films, Divine found work in underground theater and achieved a genuine kind of cult stardom in San Francisco and New York. It led to lovers galore and lots of hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol and the art/music crowd of the time. Then came the stand-up comedy (think Don Rickles dressed like Carol Channing) and even music. (Though I guess the same thing happened to Edith Massey on a smaller scale. She was great too, but not divine.)

Yet Schwarz also takes time to consider Milstead’s unhappiness with being typecast as Divine and the expectations of being a persona. It’s that odd way that a persona can bring you acclaim but also define you too much if you aren’t careful. Think David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, maybe — he was Ziggy on stage and Ziggy was a piece of him, but he was always David Bowie (or, you know, David Jones). The same goes for Milstead. Divine was a character; an expression and extension of Milstead’s personality, obviously, but still just a character. What Milstead wanted was to be recognized as Milstead, and what makes I Am Divine successful is that it achieves this with love and compassion.

Beyond the makeup, beyond the clothes, and beyond the assumptions you can make about a 300 lbs. drag queen who loved to eat, I Am Divine is a movie about friends and family. Other surviving Dreamlanders make appearances and reminisce about the good times with Milstead. A few stage co-stars and modern drag performers speak admiringly about Divine’s presence. Milstead’s own mother is in the film as well, and it’s fascinating to see her talk about her son. There’s regret in her voice and her face about how a few things went down, but there’s also a deep affection.

All this from hanging out with the right people. I’ve seen two other misfit love stories at SXSW this year — Everyone’s Going to Die and Upstream Color. In a way, I Am Divine makes the third. It’s a different kind of love, maybe. Whereas the other two were about the redemptive power of romance, I Am Divine is more about how the love and support of friends can bring out what’s best in you. It was Waters who gave Milstead the nickname Divine; it was Milstead who lived up to the moniker.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.