Sunday, November 24, 2013

I AM DIVINE (2013)

Directed by Jeffrey Schwartz

Where & When: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles, CA. November 2, 2013 10:30PM


Long before there was RuPaul, the sleek and glamorous lady boy who has captivated audiences with her hit television show that puts competing drag queens through their paces, there was Divine. And no, I'm not referring to Bette Midler who began her career as "The Divine Miss M" around the same time. I am talking about Harris Glenn Milstead who went from an overweight, gay Midwestern kid to a vulgar, larger-than-life drag performer whose biggest claim to fame was actually eating dog feces in the John Waters' 1972 cult classic, "Pink Flamingos". In the delightful documentary, "I Am Divine", the life of this shocking, hilarious and a little scary personality is explored where there was absolutely nothing he ever considered too extreme or filthy.

Growing up in Baltimore where being different made you an easy target, the very shy Glenn was bullied mercilessly as a teenager. However, he knew deep down that he was fabulous but needed to figure out a way to make the rest of the world see it. First, he became a popular hairdresser in town before running in to fellow oddball, John Waters and his movie camera. Once he placed a fright wig on his head, slapped wildly exaggerated make-up on his face and squeezed in to a skin-tight dress, Waters renamed him "Divine" and she became the undisputed star of his films. After a number of shorts that featured a cast of actors and local eccentrics, Waters made his first feature, "Mondo Trasho", an outrageous black comedy that perfectly showcased Divine's gift of demented behavior.

Dubbed "an exercise in poor taste", "Pink Flamingos" developed a small but rabid following from the gay community due to it's insane plot, freaky characters and all of the perverted sexual acts depicted. That helped the film cross-over to attract an even larger audience at midnight screenings and soon brought John Waters world-wide notoriety and turned his muse in to a star. Despite achieving more film success (including "Polyester" that featured '60's movie heartthrob, Tab Hunter and "Odorama") and a surprising detour as a popular disco music singer, Divine wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and not always be required to perform in a dress. He got an opportunity with a small role in the little-seen Alan Rudolph film "Trouble In Mind" as a gangster but Divine was soon back in a frumpy frock for Waters in the '60's set comedy, "Hairspray". He played the mother of the pleasantly plump, Tracy Turnblad (the film debut of future talk-show host, Ricki Lake) who was determined to fight racial discrimination through dance. This critical and box-office hit brought Divine new found respectability and acclaim. A role in the television comedy "Married With Children" was created for him but sadly this never came to pass as his life was cut short in 1988.

Much of Divine's story is told by the star himself through a series of interviews given over the years but the darker side of his fascinating life is shared by many friends and co-stars who tell stories of Divine's insatiable appetites that ranged from rampant drug use, his endless search for a true love and a staggering quantity of food. Frances Milstead, Divine's mother missed out on much of his career as she was estranged from her celebrated son for many years and expresses her deep regret.

Director Jeffrey Schwartz has previously brought long overdue attention to other fringe entertainers who where not fully appreciated during their day such as Hollywood B-movie shock master, William Castle, gay film historian, Vito Russo and 70's porn star, Jack Wrangler. The doc shows this fearless performer was pushing long held boundaries of what could be shown on screen and while he wasn't waving a gay pride flag at every opportunity, Divine had no shame and was proud of who he was. But the world, at the time, was not completely ready to accept a man in a dress, no matter how talented. Divine was popular in certain circles and could make it up the ladder only so high but that didn't stop him from trying to inch up a little higher.

"I Am Divine" shines a great, big loving spotlight on this gifted, iconic performer. In the film, "Pink Flamingos, Divine's character Babs Johnson fought to keep her title as the "filthiest person alive". Divine has hung on to that well-earned crown and there has never been any serious competition from anyone to take it away.