Documentary by Jeffrey Schwartz
After many successful showings at film festivals around the world, this wildly popular documentary settles in this week for a run at Enzian Theater in Maitland.
When it moved from its premiere at SXSW to the Florida Film Festival last year, audiences were astounded that I am Divine is the very first full-length documentary (and still the only one) completely committed to the drag legend.
That’s not befitting the legend that Divine was, and still is. Together with director John Waters who’s been the subject of several documentaries, shorts and a couple films Divine defined counterculture Trash Cinema. Their art form was shock and bad taste, comedies that reveled in their cheapness. Waters and Divine introduced audiences to smoking nuns, lobster rape, and foot fetishes. Now infamous is a moment where the drag queen ate dog feces just to prove how disgusting her character was.
In this documentary director Jeffrey Schwartz peels back the layers of outrageousness to show Harris Glenn Milstead, the chubby, shy Baltimore boy who grew up to be Divine. It’s a fascinating and emotional tale miles more complicated than many of the movie plots Divine was involved in.
Milstead’s shyness may not be surprising; many over-the-top performers cover up their shortcomings with bravado. Milstead’s longing for acceptance from both his parents and from the Hollywood system that could easily dismiss him is heartbreaking.
In an interview this last year, lifelong friend and director John Waters said of Divine; “He wanted to play men just as much as women. He had no desire to be a woman.”
So how did Milstead find the strength to create Divine in the first place?
Schwartz and his crew have a great insight into the tragedy that was Divine’s unrequited dream for legitimacy. Footage and interviews are pieces together with wit and pace. Famous people like Waters and Tab Hunter pop up, adding to the surprise. The first-hand anecdotes are plentiful, many of them are funny, and all are edifying.
However, this doc slightly misses some of Divine’s trashy glory. She was always featured in visually specific films, and this doc never utilizes the opportunity to borrow some of that off-kilter style, to add more entertainment value. Instead, I am Divine is a surprisingly sweet and formal take on a character known for being anything but. How she pulled off her transformation from the shy child to the shocking performer is breezed through, overshadowed by Milstead’s search for respect.
The big drag legend was featured in other docs, namely Divine Trash, about filmmaker John Waters. So it’s way past time 25 years after Divine’s untimely death that Glenn Milstead and his creation gets some serious attention for the vibrant lives they lived.