I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as the cinematic terrorist, the filthiest person alive, the queen so fucking beautiful she cant stand it herself, Divine. She was strutting, sashaying and sneering her way through the streets of Baltimore, leaving a trail of shock and sleaze in her wake, all to the wild screams of Little Richard’s “Girl Can’t Help It” in John Waters’ trash classic Pink Flamingos. Divine was everything I ever wanted to be and more: subversive, threatening, oddly attractive and best of all, completely alarming. I was never the same and I also never looked back, dedicating my life to living in her anarchic image.
This all goes to say: I was already a fan of Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary I Am Divine before I even hit play. With interviews from John Waters, Mink Stole and other Dreamland regulars, as well as Michael Musto, Holly Woodlawn and Divine’s own mother Frances Milstead, I Am Divine traces Divine’s filth-spirational life from his childhood as a fat queer in Baltimore to his deviously depraved film career to his live performances with The Cockettes to his sequined disco career to sadly, his unexpected death during the height of his mainstream success with the release of Hairspray.
Even though I obviously loved every clip from Divine’s films with John Waters and his unsettling musical performances including my personal anthem, “Born To Be Cheap,” I Am Divine is more than just a breathless, fanatical ode to the Queen of Filth. Not only does the film show Divine’s transgressive mastery, it also humanizes Divine, introducing viewers to Glenn, the man behind the makeup.
Unsurprisingly, Divine did not have an easy childhood as the fat, fey kid in school. More interested in doing his girlfirend’s hair up in a nightmarish 60’s bouffant than trying to round third base, Divine was bullied heavily due to his weight and his fairly apparent sexuality.
Divine’s life changed dramatically once he met John Waters, David Lochary and the other Dreamland delinquents. Making D-I-Y films such as Eat Your Makeup and Roman Candles, Divine, through the encouragement and cinematic eye of Waters, began channeling his inner rage, originated from his place as an outsider. With each successive film, Divine became more outrageous, abject and utterly terrifying.
From here, I assume almost everyone reading Filthy Dreams knows the story. Divine eats dog shit, gets the ultimate award: the electric chair, kisses teen heartthrob Tab Hunter and plays Tracy Turnblad’s mother before a fat-suited John Travolta butchered that role. Whether on screen or stage, Divine was fearless, pushing every boundary possible even within drag culture.
Poured into her ill-fitting, trashy clothes, Divine used her weight as ammunition, poking fun at drag’s image consciousness. As John Waters says in the film, “He was breaking the rules of drag and defining them by wearing stuff that a fat person would never, ever wear. He took it to a different level. He took it to the level of anarchy.”
As obsessed with Divine’s anarchy as I am, which was surely satiated by the film, I Am Divine was perhaps most powerful when it stripped away the layers of Divine, revealing the real life experiences that shaped Divine’s performances. While I always adore and often steal from John Waters’ campy conversational style, Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, provided some of the most rawly emotional and unforgettable moments in the film.
Arriving home with no eyebrows and a half-shaved head after filming with Waters, Divine was disowned from his family after coming out to them, admitting not only that he was gay but that he also experimented with drugs. His mother tearfully recalls telling him to “keep going and forget you have a mother and father.” As she describes, “I remember saying that and I felt so bad after I said it.” Naturally for Divine, it was “a horrible, horrible experience.”
Years later, Frances Milstead was randomly sitting next to a man reading a magazine, which featured a photograph of Divine. Recognizing her son through the makeup, Frances discovered Glenn was in fact, Divine. Keeping the magazine, Milstead went to a screening of Female Trouble to watch her son as crime personified, Dawn Davenport. Before the film, several men came up to her, warning her that she wouldn’t like the movie. She announced, “I’m Divine’s mother!”
After watching Female Trouble, Frances called Divine. She explains in I Am Divine, “When he heard my voice, he started to cry and I started to cry. He says, ‘Mom, can I come back home and we can be a family again?’ I said, ‘Glen, that’s the nicest thing you could say to me. We’d love to have you come back home.’ When he went to visit, his parents, as John Waters remembers, put a sign on the front lawn, reading “Welcome Home Divine.”
An important, inspiring film, I Am Divine depicts the strength, bravery and humanity behind the mountains of makeup, intimidating growl and tight sequined dresses. Through the film, Divine emerges as a role model to any outsider who wants to shock, horrify, subvert and shake-up the status quo.
As John Waters says, “Divine stood for all outsiders. He stood for anybody who didn’t fit in, that exaggerated what everybody hated and turned it into a style and won.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, John.
Just for kicks, I’ll end this review with my favorite performance by Divine. From the sailors to Divine’s entrance in a pink convertible, “You Think You’re A Man” almost exceeds the description of over-the-top. As Holly Woodlawn exclaims in I Am Divine, “No one else can ever call themselves Divine. She earned it, she worked for it, and God damn it, it’s hers.”
John Travolta did butcher Divine’s role in Hairspray. I can’t watch the musical version of it at all, in fact. YEEEUCH