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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I AM DIVINE -- DVD review by porfle

I can't remember where I first heard about "Pink Flamingos" and its outrageous drag-queen star Divine--probably Danny Peary's book "Cult Movies"--but back in 1981 when I got my first VCR and started ordering movies on tape (owning a movie on VHS in those days was both exciting and expensive) that infamous John Waters film was one of them. 

And it didn't disappoint.  Outrageous?  The crudely-filmed paean to filth oozed with one outrage after another, culminating in Divine's most unforgettable act ever--eating dog poop, for real, right there in the final closeup. How, I wondered, does a person get  to that point as an actor, as a personality, and as a human being?  I knew quite a bit about the movie, but who was Divine?

I AM DIVINE (2013), a documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz ("Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story"), sets out to answer this question in entertaining and fairly informative fashion.  With friends and acquaintances supplying the voiceover along with archival comments from Divine, we get the straight story (so to speak) along with tons of film and video footage presented in a pleasing animation-enhanced visual style. 

Being familiar as most of us are with Divine the flamboyant star (to put it mildly), my main interest was finding out about the person behind the character.  I AM DIVINE satisfies this curiosity by telling us the story of a lonely, introverted boy named Harris Glenn Milstead, whose childhood in Baltimore was a daily ordeal of getting mocked and beaten up for being different. 

Not openly gay--that would come later--Glenn was, as his family doctor warned his mother Frances,  a very effeminate boy.  Besides attending Sunday School, his interests lie in hairstyling, clothes, and, as he discovered while preparing to attend a costume party with his then-girlfriend Diane Evans, dressing up like a girl. 

This would later lead to his entry in various drag contests,  but while the competition busied themselves trying to emulate female appearance and behavior, Glenn's goal was to exaggerate it to the extreme. He didn't want to be a woman, but a bizarre caricature of one which would allow him to flaunt his own suppressed personality traits in public with no inhibitions. 

In a low-key,  matter-of-fact style, this film guides us through the various milestones of Glenn's life including his fateful meeting with aspiring underground filmmaker John Waters when both were teenagers.  Rare photographs and film footage recount the evolution of the Divine character, a collaboration between Glenn, John Waters, and makeup man Van Smith, and his appearance in early Waters films such as "The Diane Linkletter Story", "Mondo Trasho", and "Multiple Maniacs."  It was Smith who gave Divine his most distinctive feature--the partially-shaved hairline with grotesquely exaggerated eyebrows and eye makeup. 

Clips from Waters' early magnum opus "Pink Flamingos" include a behind-the-scenes view of the celebrated dog-poop finale in which they were forced to follow the dog around for hours waiting for it to perform as planned.  The documentary cuts away at precisely the fateful moment, presumably in order to avoid an X-rating, but it's still interesting hearing Divine and others talk about what it was like doing it and the effect it had on audiences at the time.  (As for me,  I can no longer watch the actual scene without gagging.)

Later, as one might guess, Divine would come to view such infamy as both a blessing and a curse which hindered his aspirations as an actor.  Meanwhile, however, we see his meteoric rise to underground super-stardom and cult worship with smash international appearances as a disco singer and stage actor. 

He also enjoyed subsequent successes in Waters' "Female Trouble" (described as the filmmaker's "Gone With the Wind") and later entries into the mainstream such as "Polyester" with Tab Hunter, the wildly popular "Hairspray" with Ricki Lake, and a non-Waters cult comedy-western "Lust in the  Dust" with Hunter and Lainie Kazan.

Inevitably, the documentary begins to reveal how overindulgence in drugs (he was a self-described "pot head") and food, along with a generally unhealthy lifestyle, would put Divine on the road to an early demise.  The tragic irony is that this occurs just as his career is hitting its peak and he has made a happy reconciliation with his parents.  Frances Milstead's own wistful recollections of her son Glenn give I AM DIVINE much of its heart and allow us to see the human being behind Divine's garish fascade.

John Waters fills in a lot of the blanks with his own personal stories, as do Divine friends and co-stars Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, Diane Evans, Ricki Lake, Tab Hunter, Lisa Jane Persky, and several others.  Among those appearing in archival footage are David Lochary, Van Smith, and Edith Massey. Several interview clips of Glenn Milstead himself reveal him to be a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who wanted to be accepted on his own rather than being forever identified with his fictional counterpart. 

The DVD from Wolfe Video is widescreen with 5.1 and 2.0 sound.  Subtitles are in English.  Extras include a commentary track featuring director Schwarz, producer Lotti Pharriss Knowles, and actress Mink Stole, along with trailers for this and other gay and lesbian-related films from Wolfe Video.

With copious amounts of footage showcasing Divine's wilder side, including shaking his massive flab onstage in halter tops and G-strings, famously getting raped by a giant lobster in "Multiple Maniacs", and (my favorite) strutting his stuff down the main drag of Baltimore in "Pink Flamingos" while actual bystanders gape in open-mouthed astonishment, I AM DIVINE should satisfy viewers who are interested only in the more freakish aspects of the immortal underground star's persona.  But its main accomplishment for me is the non-sensationalistic way in which it presents Harris Glenn Milstead as a basically decent person who was loved by many and fondly remembered by many more.

Buy it at


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