Review: New documentary does right by a cult movie icon in 'I Am Divine'
AUSTIN - No horror movie has ever given me the same amount of anxiety before seeing it that "Pink Flamingos" did.
The first time I read about the film, I remember recoiling completely at every single part of the description. It was in Danny Peary's book "Cult Movies," and when I picked that book up in 1981, I read through it in about three days, and it started me on a search to see all the films in the book as quickly as possible. The only film that I hesitated about in any way was "Pink Flamingos." It didn't help that I read the J. Hoberman/Jonathan Rosenbaum "Midnight Movies" not long after that, and their chapter on John Waters only made me more sure I was afraid of everything that film stood for. I was still in my early teens, and while I was drawn almost innately to the wilder fringes of film, my own personal life experience was so alien to what it sounded like Waters captured in his films that I just cringed at the idea of seeing them.
Now, at the age of 42, I laugh at the idea of ever having been afraid of Divine or John Waters or the films they made together. I may not love every one of their collaborations, but I love that they collaborated. I love that they found each other, and that along with the rest of the lunatics who were part of Dreamland Studios, like David Lochary or Mink Stole or Edith Massey, they made movies that didn't capture a subculture so much as they launched one. John Waters has been so thoroughly embraced by the mainstream at this point that it's hard to remember a time he was considered a purely underground artist, but the new documentary "I Am Divine" does a great job of showing how Glenn Milstead went from being a nice Baltimore kid to being a drag icon who shocked the world.
I think the reason Waters and Divine scared me as a kid is the same reason I love them so much now: they don't care. They never cared. The notion of being popular is so foreign to the art they made together that it seems bizarre anyone ever watched it aside from them. They made profoundly personal movies, and the world they created onscreen was a completely original. The heightened language, the way characters behaved… Waters wasn't trying to capture the world around him. He was trying to burn it down and rewrite it in capital letters, and he needed Divine the same way Divine needed him.
The film, written and directed by Jeffrey Schwartz, is a brisk, energetic sprint through Milstead's life, and it doesn't just jump right to the John Waters years. First, there's a fair amount of time spent showing how Milstead first became involved in the drag world, and the way his performance sensibility developed. Milstead never quite took things seriously, and his tendency to wear clothes that were not meant for someone of his girth as part of his drag persona was a perfect way to show off just how confrontational he was. Waters talks about the origin of the name "Divine," and then we jump into "Eat Your Makeup," where Divine played Jackie Kennedy, recreating the assassination of JFK a mere two years after it happened.
What makes the film special is the way they manage to draw a connection from Divine to the culture around her, showing how the character created by Jayne Mansfield was a direct precursor to the character Divine played, and the way "Multiple Maniacs" and "Mondo Trasho" managed to create a career for Waters and Divine almost by accident. The story of Divine's first visit to San Francisco is the greatest trashy fairy tale, and it's really lovely to see someone suddenly find themselves welcomed when even their own family has rejected them. The persona kept evolving, and Waters would write these wild monologues for Divine to perform onstage. The character didn't just exist in the movies; by the time Divine moved to San Francisco full-time, it's probably safe to say Milstead no longer existed.
It's not everyone who can parody a social scene and be embraced fully by that social scene at the same time, but Divine seemed to be deconstructing drag while perfecting her own drag act. The success of her time with the Cockettes in San Francisco led to a return to Baltimore to make what was easily their biggest film to date, and I'll admit it… even now, even knowing the film as well as I do, the moment they started showing some of the "Pink Flamingos" material, I started getting nervous all over again. That film will always seem like one of the great taboos to me, and if you're not familiar with it, it's hard to know where to start describing it. The film is ostensibly about a competition between two families to see which of them is The Filthiest Family Alive. It is safe to say that Babs Johson, the character Divine plays, is willing to do anything to win that title, and the film builds to a final image that must have seemed like a hate crime the first time audiences saw it. No matter how much I brace myself for that shot, Divine's literal shit-eating grin remains on the short list of the most unsettling things I've ever witnessed, even as it makes me laugh more and more as I get older simply because I appreciate the audacious prankster spirit that really drives the work.
There's some great stuff discussing the way Van Smith helped gradually perfect the visual design for Divine, including that unmistakable eye make-up. There is a great section about how hard it was for Divine to act opposite Edith Massey. Even better, the film shows just how blurred the line is between fiction and documentary in some of the work they did together. Once "I Am Divine" starts moving from film to film, showing clips from the various movies they made together, I flashed back to when I first moved to LA. One of my co-workers at the time was a loud, wicked, unapologetic queen who considered Divine the great performer of all time, and he could do every line from "Female Trouble" without hesitation. He loved freaking people out by loudly parading through the store where we worked and quoting Dawn Davenport's most deliciously soap opera of soap opera dialogue. The glee he took from quoting the film was almost exactly like the joy that is obvious in Divine's actual performance. I've always loved that "Polyester" is basically a Douglas Sirk women's picture seen through the filter of Waters, and they have some great stuff about the movie and the way Divine approached her part as Francine Fishpaw. Tab Hunter deserves credit as an incredibly hip and generous performer because of the way he approached his role in "Polyester," and I found some of the "Polyester" stuff quite moving.
There were things that Divine did that I was unaware of, like a stage play called "Women Behind Bars" that he starred in, eventually bringing that play to New York, where a who's who of late-'70s celebrity stardom came to see him. The photos of Elton John onstage at the Madison Square Garden shows with Divine are just surreal. There were more plays, and Waters talks about how he wanted Divine to have a career away from his films, and watching the way Divine embraced New York disco culture, it's sort of amazing. Talk about a person who made the most of their moment. Divine was no pseudo-celebrity. You see photos of him with Mick Jagger or Andy Warhol, and it's pretty clear which person in the photo is the center of gravity. Divine owned any room he walked into, and it seems like he just flattened anything that stood in the way of his own fabulousness.
Even so, there is sadness that underscores the film, and there's a moment that came when Divine finally told his parents the full truth about himself as a performer and a person, and their response was to tell him that he was to forget that he had ever had parents. I can say from my perspective point that I would never say that to a child of mine, but it was a different age and I can't imagine how any parent could easily or quickly wrap their head around the sort of life that Divine carved out for herself. They deal with the way Divine's relationship with food was a way to deal with whatever pain was part of the life that she made for herself. They get into her recording career and the way her "songs" were created to cover for her inability to sing any conventional way, and honestly, there are some of the songs we hear in the documentary that would still probably get a club moving like crazy.
Finally, despite all I've read about Divine and Waters, there was one thing I never realized, and until this film, I'd never even considered it. Divine did not think of himself as a transvestite. At all. Divine considered himself an actor, and they talk about how much he wanted to be thought of as a character actor. They show some clips from "Trouble In Mind," the Alan Rudolph film that I believe may have been my first time seeing him in a film, and I believe that in today's film climate, Divine could have had a long and successful career playing both men and women at different times. But back then, in the mid-'80s, American pop culture had no idea what to do with someone like Divine except in the counterculture, and he chafed at the role that he ended up permanently playing. I thought it was sort of amazing when his mother told the story of finally accepting who he was after seeing him in "Female Trouble," and I am perfectly fine admitting that I ended up in tears during that section of the film.
It is crushingly sad that "Hairspray" turned into the first real hit that Divine starred in, and fitting that Waters was the writer/director. One of the reasons "Hairspray" is truly great is because it never seemed to be a selling out of the aesthetic that Waters had developed over the course of his filmography, but it somehow managed to work as a movie anyone could go see. They get into the tensions that existed between Divine and Rikki Lake, and Lake tells some great stories while busting out her great Divine impression. If you want more proof that the Oscars don't genuinely go looking for the five best performances in a year? The idea that Divine did not get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for "Hairspray" should convince you. His Edna Turnblad is a wonderful, empathetic character, and no less that Pauline Kael flipped out for him and for the film. If I ever knew that Divine had been hired to join the cast of "Married With Children" in a role written especially for him to play as a man, I had long since forgotten it, and maybe that's because it was overshadowed by his passing.
Affectionate, informative and genuinely entertaining, "I Am Divine" may not tackle a hard-hitting social issue or illuminate some long-buried injustice, but as a talking heads documentary about an artist's work and life, it's… well… divine.
"I Am Divine" plays again at SXSW on Wednesday at 9:15 PM and Thursday and 11:15 AM.