If you’re like me, you’ve seen most of Divine’s film performances. And if you’re like me, you find Divine intriguing but know little about her life, art or background. All you know is that she and John Waters made a bunch of movies together, and that Divine died young, at 42.
I Am Divine fills in the gaps, covering née-Glenn Milstead's childhood and adolescence (difficult), his coming out, and his life as a cult figure who was nearing mainstream acceptance when he died suddenly of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hotel room (the night before he was to film an episode of Married…with Children).
Let's be clear: There is nothing critical of Divine in this documentary. Everyone interviewed is a friend, and the fact that they all call him a great actor is eyebrow raising. Divine was a great performer, sure. Actor? Nah. But she was sure as hell fun to watch.
Also intriguing is the movie's take on Divine's acting performances as a man. Consider Trouble in Mind, a not-great neonoir tale from the 1980s in which Divine plays a gangster, or Out of the Blue. As much fun as Babs Johnson and Edna Turnblad are, this Divine had more range; it's a pity that side of him didn't get more play as time went on.
That said, I Am Divine excels at defining Divine's role in the queer film, music and theater scenes in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, Divine started wearing more outrageous clothing as time went on because she wanted to send up drag queens. The hair shaved back to the middle of his head was done for the application of more and more garish eye makeup.
For those of us who came to Divine later in life (for me it was in college; I saw Pink Flamingos and thought, "Well, I have to see more of this"), you'll learn about her several disco hits and ever-increasing move toward the mainstream.
There are a few threads left unexplored. Divine's high school girlfriend disappears from the story when their relationship ends. There's no exploration as to what she thought of Divine coming out.
There's also little-to-no exploration of Divine's psychology. That's partly for practical reasons—Divine is only with us on DVD, his friends' memories and in spirit—but the link to his feelings of being an outsider only go so far as to explain his overeating (which lots of interviewees treat as a joke) and his desire for acceptance. Sure, it all makes sense. We live in 2014 and we understand the basics of psychology. But some digging? Why not?
Of course, I Am Divine is a celebration and respectful of Divine's life and work, so it's easy to understand why the filmmakers may have avoided the more painful stuff. Divine's mother appears on camera several times to talk about the way she kicked Divine out of the house and only welcomed him back after she discovered, in the 1980s, that her son Glenn was Divine. It's a happy moment in the story.
Further on the plus side, if you've ever wondered what's going on with the stars of John Waters' movies, they're all here. Plus, there's a lot of reverence for Divine's costumer. And there are scenes from early Waters movies, including Eat Your Makeup, in which Divine plays Jackie Kennedy and reenacts President Kennedy's assassination. It's particularly fascinating to learn Eat Your Makeup was filmed a couple years after Kennedy's death, when it was still a fresh wound on America's psyche.
The film also recounts Divine's stint in Santa Fe when she filmed Lust in the Dust—her first non- Waters vehicle, opposite Tab Hunter and Lainie Kazan (see Looking Back).
When I Am Divine ends, it's a little bittersweet. She was a powerful performer, and off screen it seems as if he was a gentle soul. What would he have done in Waters' last picture A Dirty Shame? Or in Married…with Children?
I AM DIVINE
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz
With John Waters and Mink Stole