The late larger-than-life, cross-dressing extraordinaire who ushered in the now-established world of theatrical drag (simultaneously bringing queer performance art to the mainstream) is given the documentary treatment in the warmly nostalgic and playful tribute, I Am Divine.
The alter-ego of shy suburban boy Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was the muse of “Pope of Trash” filmmaker John Waters (the biggest contributor here, offering up some deliciously trashy anecdotes). Described by her best friend as a “cinematic terrorist”, the duo were childhood friends in 60’s Baltimore, and Divine’s trajectory, from early transgressive dog poop-eating infamy to full-blown stardom, is exhaustively covered by director Jeffrey Schwarz.
Fully ‘out’ before being gay was even recognised as an alternative lifestyle, Divine managed to tap into the uninhibited more accepting culture which emerged during the seventies, and her popularity surged as her NY stage performances gaining prominence around the time Studio 54 and the world of disco exploded. While the decadence of this era is on display (via scuzzy, lo-fi archive footage), Schwarz is still able cut through the pomp and glitz and really unearth the person behind the embellished persona.
We see early 8mm footage of the performer as a child, and her now-deceased mother (given a posthumous nod in the closing credits) reminisce over the initial struggles her and her husband had in accepting their son’s life. Most poignant of all, however, is the footage and voice-over of Divine herself (the performer appears to be somewhat of a gentle giant underneath that cosmetic excess), which the director deftly incorporates into the journey. Schwarz’s film is bolstered by a colourful array of Divine’s friends and past associates, the sheer number of contributors he has at his disposal speaks volumes of how well-loved the performer was.
Despite the inherently tragic narrative arc (the mainstream acceptance Divine so desperately craved finally arrived with the release of her last film, Hairspray) the film refuses to dwell on the maudlin, and it breezes along with irresistible panache as it covers the evolving life and career of an unconventional artist. It’s both a fascinating snapshot of the changing social attitudes of the 70s and 80s, and an insightful glimpse at how an underground act was able to grow and flourish in the pre-internet age of online hype.
Divine’s anarchic stage and screen presence also gave birth to an unexpectedly successful recording career, complete with the obligatory appearance on Top of the Pops. This event appears to have caused a near-meltdown for the controllers at the Beeb, but it was a stage in Divine’s life which existed as more than just a device to shock, and Schwarz thoughtfully focuses on the taboo-breaking, quietly radical aspects of this. Reverential to the subject matter and moving without ever being cloying, I Am Divine is a deeply affectionate and wickedly humorous portrait of a true original.