Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Jeffrey Schwarz, 2013
Starring: Divine, John Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto, Bruce Vilanch

“I give blowjobs to serial killers!”

Since I first learned about Kickstarter, I was hopeful that some interesting projects would come out of it, but skeptical that it was mostly a way for hacks (or people who already had access to funding) to kick off self-indulgent music/art/film projects that no one actually needs. When Amanda Palmer managed to collect over $1 million to fund her newest album, it pretty much confirmed my worst fears and I swore I would never donate to any Kickstarter project (plus I’m a broke writer in debt from grad school). And then I saw the open campaign for a new documentary (now finished) about performer and all around icon Divine and, before I knew it, I donated. And then I waited anxiously for the film to be finished and for a screening to come around. 

When the Maryland Film Festival, located in my home-away-from-home, Baltimore, announced a screening, I was ecstatic. I was also afraid that my expectations were too high, but I’m happy to say that I Am Divine: The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by documentary director Jeffrey Schwarz (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), delivered on all fronts. 

But first, some words about the movie from one of my idols and one of Divine's closest friends, John Waters:
"Divine was my close friend and fearless muse. Who else could convincingly turn from teenage delinquent to mugger, prostitute, unwed mother, child abuser, fashion model, nightclub entertainer, murderess, and jailbird? All in the same movie? That’s why I am giving my full blessing to a new documentary feature film, I AM DIVINE, to be directed by award-winning filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz."

Full of photos, home movies, film clips (some of them very rare), TV clips, live performances, and a buttload of interviews, I Am Divine tells the story of one of my first idols, actor, drag performer, icon, singer, and so much more, Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine. Schwarz gleaned Divine’s story from some of his closest friends, co-performers, supporters, and family members. There are lengthy interviews with one of Divine’s oldest friends, director John Waters, who helped birthed the Divine entity and gave the Most Beautiful Woman in the World her glorious, unforgettable name. Also interviewed are Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto, Bruce Vilanch, and a number of other actors and performers who worked alongside Divine. The documentary is also bolstered by interviews with Divine’s first girlfriend, Diana Evans, as well as long-estranged mother Frances Milstead. The film reveals that there was a happy ending: after shunning Divine because of his lifestyle, homosexuality, and out of control film, the family made up before Divine’s death and Schwarz was able to interview Milstead months before she passed away. 

The documentary begins with Divine’s early life in Baltimore in the ‘50s as a viciously bullied young school boy and continues through his teenage years playing dress up in his mother’s clothes and later in public, where he donned some convincing Elizabeth Taylor garb. The film covers his early relationship with John Waters and their first films together: Eat Your Makeup (1967), where he appeared as Jackie Kennedy during the Kennedy assassination only five years after the president’s fatal shooting, Mondo Trasho (1969), and the shocking but wonderful Multiple Maniacs (1970), where Divine plays a homicidal maniac and is eventually raped by a lobster. 

The filming and reception of Pink Flamingos is covered in depth, where Divine began her first rise to fame and earned the title “the filthiest person alive.” Other Waters’ films such as Female TroublePolyesterHairspray, and more are also explored. Divine’s western-spoof, Lust in the Dust (1985), where she starred alongside Tab Hunter is also discussed and highlights her intense work ethic, suffering through the heat and high altitudes despite weight and health issues. Aside from Divine’s film career, both life-long fans and newbies will probably learn a lot here. Schwarz covers Divine’s theatrical career in New York and San Francisco, when she appeared in plays like Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman, performed with drag group The Cockettes, and had many nights partying at Studio 54. Divine’s relationship with her manager Bernard Jay is explored, and her stint as a European singing sensation and disco diva, including the strenuous touring schedule and number of records and singles. 

The film also covers more serious topics like Divine’s drive to be taken seriously as an actor outside of John Waters’ films and outside of a drag persona. Fame, overspending, overeating, addiction, and health issues are all addressed, culminating in Divine’s early death of an enlarged heart in 1988, the day before she was supposed to begin filming a new role on Married With Children, one that would likely make her fame and reputation a household name. 

Part of what’s so wonderful about this film (and Divine herself/himself) is that now is the perfect time for audiences — and younger LGBT people in particular — to see someone so amazing and so utterly themselves, coming out to the world. Part of my problem with the “It Gets Better” campaign is that it seems to have an inherent message of assimilation. Yes, it’s OK to be gay/transgendered, but you should look and act as mainstream as possible until you are an adult. As Divine would say, “fuck you very much.” At its heart, this film is a story about a person who dared to be themselves — the most extreme and outrageous version of themselves possible — regardless of the cost and rose to fame and lived an incredibly rich life. 

Not only does the film come highly, highly recommended, but the Maryland Film Festival screening was everything I hoped for and more. Much to my surprise, during the Q&A session after the film, I learned that I was sitting two rows behind John Waters, Mink Stole, and others from Dreamland Productions. Though it has not yet been released on DVD, that will hopefully happen later this year. To learn about about the film and upcoming screenings, visit the Facebook page, which is full of great links, and check out the I Am Divine Foundation. From the site: “I Am Divine Foundation was created in Divine’s name to raise awareness and bring hope to those being bullied today. Divine was deeply affected by bullying. John Waters recalls Divine being frequently bullied by students and faculty during his school years.”

"And you're the most beautiful woman in the world! Nothing can change that!"

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