I Am Divine (2013) | Outrageous, courageous and fiercely unique – the true story of the cult superstar who broke all the rules and won!
There’s a great line in the 1984 Stock, Aitken & Waterman Hi-NRG song ‘I’m So Beautiful’ which sums up Divine’s personal philosophy; ‘We’re all beautiful, can’t you see? Look at me!’ I Am Divine is a timely reminder of this kind of sentiment.
Outrageous, courageous and fiercely unique, Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, went from midnight movie star to disco diva and respected comedy film actor in the 1970s and 1980s, stomped on conventional notions of beauty, sexuality and gender identity – in a killer pair of Cha Cha heels, of course – exaggerated what everybody hated, turned it into a style that was all his own and won. An unsung gay icon and a hero to outsiders everywhere, Divine perfectly embodied ‘freedom of expression’ in all his/her 370-pounds of trashy gloriousness.
I Am Divine, from director Jeffrey Schwarz, pays tribute to the cult superstar legend and to Harris Glenn Milstead, the man behind the paint and make-up, whose legacy may be the rule-breaking creation that pal John Waters called ‘the Godzilla of drag queens’, but who could have become America’s answer to Paul O’Grady had he not suddenly died in 1988, at the age of 42. But what he does leave behind is a motto that signs off this poignant yet life-affirming biopic: ‘Nothing is impossible. If you believe in something and you believe in yourself, do it!’
Brave and unapologetic from the beginning, the overweight and effeminate Glenn Milstead (born 19 October 1945), defied the bullies and his Baptist parents, Bernard and Frances, in his native Baltimore and by age 17 he was hanging out with fellow freaks, including Dave Lochary (his drag mentor), doing LSD and making home movies with fellow outsider John Waters.
It was in Waters’ early experimental films that Divine was born. She got her name in Roman Candles (1966), had her first starring role in Mondo Trasho (1969), and showed her angry side in Multiple Maniacs (1970) while being raped by a giant lobster. The monstrous but sexy Jayne Mansfield meets Don Rickles creation, who got her iconic look from make-up artist Van Smith while performing live at San Francisco’s Palace, then cemented her cult status by eating a real dog turd in Pink Flamingos (1972).
The notorious midnight movie turned Divine into a phenomenon – David Hockney even painted a portrait. A recording career followed, with Divine becoming one of the most in-demand artists of the era. But underneath the big candyfloss wig there was serious actor aching to come out and the road to respectability was a long one indeed for Glenn Milstead, who soon tired of being labelled the man in drag who ate dog shit.
In John Waters’ Polyester (1981) he showed he had the makings of a brilliant comic actor. He even got to act opposite his teenage idol, Tab Hunter – and share a passionate onscreen kiss. But it was his reinvention as the loveable momma Edna Turnblad in the hugely successful Hairspray (1988) that set him on the path to clean up his act (he had serious weight issues and a dope habit) and carve out a new career as a character actor. But in 1988, on the eve of him appearing in the hit sitcom Married… With Children, Milstead died of a massive heart attack. One can only imagine what he could have achieved had he lived. Could he, like our very own Paul O’Grady (aka Lily Savage), have ended up shaking off his drag past and become a national treasure as well? Who knows?
I Am Divine is a touching tribute to Glenn Milstead and his outrageous creation, and the documentary is a riot of hilarious moments, but there are sad ones as well, no more so that when Glenn’s mother talks honestly about she rejected him over his wild lifestyle. The story of their reunion will bring a tear to your eye.
In select cinemas in the UK and Ireland from 18th July
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Available on DVD and VoD from September 2014 – Pre Order Now
Posted on July 18, 2014, in American Indie, Cult classic, Cult Film News, Documentary, Must-See and tagged American Indie, Divine, Documentary, Gay documentary, I Am Divine, John Waters, Must See, Peccadillo Pictures, Underground superstar. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.