director Jeffrey Schwarz
A few years back, I watched Steve Yeager’s Divine Trash (1998), a documentary about John Waters, his films, and his muse, Divine. It set me on a path of viewing all of Waters’ oeuvre and an appreciation of the utmost of the man and his work. More recently, I’d watched John Waters: This Filthy World (2007), a film of a talk series that he performed in the early 2000′s. He’s a popular interview subject in even more documentaries.
And he’s here, of course, in I Am Divine, a documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine, his big but bigger than life drag queen muse and star of his best films. And while Waters and Divine are intrinsically interconnected, as this story recounts, the focus is on the life and the talented exploits of the star and not the director.
What’s interesting about it in particular is that the portrait is more complete. Divine’s character and identity are so over-the-top and outrageous that the average person not only conflates Divine with Milstead but actually completely subsumes Milstead with his alter ego. And truly what an alter-ego she was. But I Am Divine pays tribute to both and is eye-opening in the process.
I recall when Milstead died in 1988 at the age or 42, from a massive heart attack and attributed to sleep apnea as well. Milstead had been trying to branch out as an actor, first in theater without Waters and then in a non-Waters film Lust in the Dust (1985) and then in a non-drag role in Trouble in Mind (1985) before returning to Waters in Waters’ biggest his Hairspray (1988). I recalled being perplexed by the non-drag role (I was 16 in 1985).
Milstead via Divine and Waters went from the outer edges of Baltimore culture of the 1960′s into international notoriety and stardom. As perverse as Waters’ early films had been, Milstead parlayed this into the opportunity to become a professional actor with sights on a career outside of his character Divine and was doubtlessly on the cusp of seeing that realized when he died at the young age he did.
The film also interviews and chronicles his relationship with his mother and his family which had also come around after years of separation. Waters, of course, was a very good friend and tells his inside perspective of the man who was quiet and shy when not dressed as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, “the filthiest person alive”, the overweight drag queen who redefined everything about drag.
Still, the core of what attracts me to Waters and Divine in their heyday is their absolute “punk” perversity and outrageous being, their fantastic films, their rebellious insanity turned absolute cultural critique. It’s really amazing stuff, such contrast to the hippies and other forms of rebellion happening in the 1960′s – 1980′s. It would take a decade or more for punk to catch up to them, to catch up to their coattails.