I AM DIVINE
This documentary directed by Jeffery Schwarz detailing the rise of the late, great Divine from his Baltimore origins to national then international and onwards to the brink of mainstream success is like its subject matter; in that it is funny, poignant, challenging and, especially at its conclusion, more than a little tragic.
The thing about Divine which set him apart from other drag acts, apart from his vast size which contributed to rather than distracted from his appeal, was the fact he was always willing to go that bit further, be that bit fiercer and more than prepared to be that much more outrageous than his rivals. Whilst other drag queens on the scene took themselves much more seriously Divine was prepared to send both them and himself up whilst simultaneously being wholly serious about what he was doing. Teaming up with fellow Baltimore outcast/freak John Waters was a stroke of genius and one suspects without this fortuitous pairing neither would be the recognised important figures they are today.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, though always referred to Glenn when growing up and Divine thereafter, to a conservative middle class family who indulged his leanings as an obviously effete child by encouraging him to enter the hairdressing and beauty world where his talents could flourish without too much embarrassment to his family’s sensibilities. However with the arrival of the sixties and the counterculture Glenn started to indulge in more and more outrageous antics until a rift leading to a total fall out with his family was necessary if he intended to continue down the path he was following. It rapidly became clear this is exactly that path was one he more than wanted to follow; in fact it transpired he wanted to lead the way down his own particular path.
Teaming up with John Waters and a group of fellow outcasts a few low budget movies were made, culminating in cult classics such as Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos-with its infamous eating dog shit scene- and Female Trouble. These films started to breakthrough nationally and eventually became classics on the gay and underground scenes and after this Divine’s rise to international renown was inexorable. Meanwhile a musical career was added to an already growing portfolio with several records-‘Native Love’ and ‘Shoot Your Shot’ are still personal favourites to this day although the sight of Divine, in all his glory, wobbling around on Top Of The Pops whipping himself into a frenzy whilst belting out ‘You Think You’re A Man’ is a moment that will always stay with me-—adding to the growing legend.
Around this juncture mainstream success was on the horizon and an appearance in the most successful Waters movie to date, Hairspray, showed that behind the outrage was real acting talent; an appearance as a man for the first time in ‘Trouble in Mind’ confirmed this. The success of Hairspray awarded Divine appointments with big time players and he was about to start work on the networked comedy with a recurring role in the now classic series ‘Married With Children’. Unfortunately circumstances conspired that on the weekend before he was due to start shooting-he was actually already ensconced in his Hollywood hotel preparing his lines- when he had a massive heart attack which killed him.
The tragedy of such an event would not have been lost on Divine however who would probably have appreciated the irony. Here was everything he had worked for; money, success, recognition and, probably most importantly, acceptance. It did ensure however his legacy remained a cult and, whilst it is totally selfish of me to say this, personally I am glad he remains known only to those who remember him and whoever they decide to introduce to the man and his legacy. In a way it keeps him a little closer to those who loved him without having to share him!
I Am Divine is showing at the Cameo Cinema until Thursday.