I Am Divine
Runs Fri., Nov. 15–Thurs., Nov. 21 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Harris Glenn Milstead, aka the drag queen Divine, died 25 years ago at the peak of his career, untouched by AIDS, perhaps the most unlikely movie star in alternative-become-Hollywood screen history. Jeffrey Schwarz’s fond tribute documentary is rooted in Baltimore and the recollections of John Waters, Divine’s benevolent Svengali. (There were other formative mentors, we learn, but most are dead.) It may be hard to recall now, after Hairspray has been adapted into a popular stage show and movie musical (cue John Travolta) and with Drag Race a mainstream TV staple, what a disruptive force Divine once was. He went beyond “passing” or prettiness or burlesque into a nether realm of exaggerated, messy revenge—“to use that anger from all his high-school traumas,” says Waters. In a way, Divine’s triumphant story is Revenge of the Nerds before nerds, sadistic glee before Glee. Before the 1988 Hairspray and his death that year, he told Charlie Rose “Cult status isn’t enough.” He wanted more praise from Pauline Kael. He wanted to be a real character actor, like Charles Laughton, who transcended drag.
Sadly, he hardly got the chance. (One notable exception: Alan Rudolph’s 1987 Trouble in Mind, shot here in Seattle.) Divine died in his sleep soon after winning a recurring non-drag role on Married With Children (his episodes were never filmed). As a result, most of the clips come from Waters’ shock perennials, like Polyester, Pink Flamingos (with the notorious dog-poo-eating scene), and Female Trouble (also being screened at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday). There are also generous selections from Waters’ home-movie collection and that of Divine’s family, from whom he was long estranged before a happy reunion. Praise rolls in from co-stars Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, and Ricki Lake and writers including The Village Voice’s Michael Musto. Milstead clearly had his demons—food chief among them—but also seemingly enjoyed near-total admiration from those in showbiz. He was a big stoner, says Waters, which might explain his mellow offstage demeanor, so different from the shrieking live shows we see. And did you remember that Divine cut a series of late-disco albums during the ’80s? Those music videos are a treat to behold.
Yet inescapably, Divine is now part of boomer nostalgia, like midnight movies, gay cabarets, and Studio 54 (where he met Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, and most of his idols). What was outrageous then almost seems quaint to us now. Time and distance have granted Divine a halo, and he wears it well.