I knew about Divine long before I ever saw a John Waters movie. The rock & roll magazines I read as a kid often ran pics of this obese transvestite character, and I'm not ashamed to admit it - Divine scared me. As someone says in Jeffrey Schwarz' fine new documentary I Am Divine, you didn't know if Divine would have sex with you or eat you.
When I finally got around to seeing Pink Flamingos - during the 1990s when New Line rereleased it - I wasn't disappointed. It was one of the rare occasions that a film actually lived up to the hype. As for Divine, he no longer scared me. I thought he was brilliant. I loved the way he bellowed his lines with total commitment. He wasn't just larger than life. He was larger than the world.
I worked my way through the John Waters canon, read his books, and even read 'Not Simply Divine,' a pretty good biography by Bernard Jay, Divine's manager, published in the early 1990s. From Jay's book I gathered that Divine was sickly, temperamental, and often difficult. I remember feeling bad for him, though, as he heaved his unhealthy bulk through various stage appearances. The image in my head was of a 350 pound female impersonator, perspiring like a drug addict, gyrating underneath a mirror ball, deep in debt, picking up the odd European gig to pay the bills. It wasn't a great picture, with Divine seeming like a pathetic rock star scuffling through the tail end of a strange career. Yet, it stayed in my mind and became the overriding image when I thought of Divine. I forgot the fun stuff and thought only of the personal wreckage.
That's why I was so delighted by I Am Divine. Yes, there were some difficult times, but as Schwarz is hellbent on reminding us, there was a lot of fun, too. Schwarz doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of the story - Divine was indeed an unhealthy person and he ate to excess, and while he was on his disco tour he did seem on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion - but Schwarz presents the tale of Divine's life, despite its ultimately sad end, as an unabashed triumph. This is the sort of celebration Divine deserves.
Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, survived a childhood in the Baltimore suburbs where he was bullied and taunted, was told by a doctor that he was more female than male, and eventually found himself ostracized from his family. He'd made a gallant effort at living a straight life, even bringing a girlfriend to his high school prom (he did her hair and chose her gown, of course), but there was a delinquent side to him that was bursting to come out. Smoking pot and shoplifting, spending more money than he earned working as a hairdresser, and hanging out with an always growing collection of gay friends, liberated him. When he took part in Baltimore drag balls, he took one look at the stiffly walking males in dresses and decided to add a ton of campy humor to the events. It may seem hard to believe, but female impersonators were once a dreary bunch. Divine changed that.
More than anything else, Milstead's burgeoning friendship with aspiring Baltimore filmmaker Waters gave him a license to reinvent himself. It was Waters who named Milstead 'Divine,' and it was Waters who made Divine an underground film star. Divine, in turn, was not only Waters' muse, but his secret weapon. With someone like Divine in the ranks, it's no wonder Waters wrote such outrageous screenplays. Waters is great in the documentary. More than two decades after Divine's death, Waters still speaks of his old friend with a mixture of admiration and awe. To me, they were the Lennon and McCartney of trash, and for my money, Waters has never been quite as good without Divine, not as shocking, not as exciting. Waters has said that the world has caught up to his trashy sensibilities, but I think Waters, who went on to work with the likes of Melanie Griffith and Kathleen Turner, has been slightly lost without Divine. He simply hasn't found anyone else who could be so funny.
Schwarz was the perfect director for the project. He's produced over 300 docs, and directed over 100, mostly shorts that are packed into DVDs as "extra features." He has done some full length pieces, notably a good one about the old schlockmeister William Castle, and another fine one about Vito Russo, the author of The Celluloid Closet. In 2007, Schwarz produced You Can't Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray for the DVD of the 2007 remake, which featured a section about Waters' original film. It was through the making of that DVD feature that Schwarz met Waters' collaborators, which inspired this tribute to Divine. Schwarz' aim was to portray Divine as a "serious artist and immortal star," but also to tell the story of a man who spit in the eye of convention. All "labor of love" projects should be helmed by such an experienced and competent director. I particularly liked the music on the soundtrack - it features the sort of crazed rockabilly that Waters often used in his earlier films, plus snatches taken from Divine's own recording career. (If you haven't heard Divine's songs, well, just imagine someone threatening to cut your throat while a propulsive dance beat roared in the background...)
The movie is energetic, moving, and at times, hysterical. There's a nice mix of home movie footage, plus Divine's occasional talk show appearances, footage of his stage performances, and interviews with various people who worked with him, including Rickie Lake, who felt awkward when she was first cast as Divine's daughter in Hairspray, but reveals the two eventually became friends and "eating buddies." It's also interesting to learn about Van Smith, the make up artist responsible for Divine's outrageous look.
I wish someone in the movie, Waters perhaps, had speculated where Divine would've ended up had he lived. Divine was making an effort to change his image and was taking conventional male roles, sans makeup. At the time of his death he was being groomed for a role in Fox television's 'Married With Children.' Could he have continued in this way? Would we have seen Divine as an old lady? Would Waters have made a film about the aging of his generation, with Divine at the center of it? I'd buy tickets for that one.
Like all documentaries which we know ahead of time will end badly (Divine died at 42, sleeping in a hotel) there's a slight sense of doom as the minutes tick by. The mainstream success of Hairspray made Divine's passing doubly hard to take. Still, it's hard to be too sad - Divine was eventually reunited with his parents, became more famous than he'd ever imagined, and according to the film, was never lacking in male companionship. He lived big. He ate big. He spent big. We may miss him, but we can't honestly say we expected such a huge, human comet to live a long life.