Cinematic audiences have been very used to men ‘donning a dress’ in order to hide or covet something over the decades. In Some Like it Hot (1959), Gerry and Joe (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) needed to flee the city after witnessing a Mob hit. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) became Dorothy Michaels to secure a recurring role on a soap opera in Tootsie (1982) boys dressing as girls have caused mayhem in horror films; the definitive, of course, being proto-slasher, Psycho (1960)There have been road movies with drag-artists aiming for acceptance – self as well as societal – and life contentment amid lipstick, chicken fillets, and feather boas like in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). Plus, there are men wishing to extrapolate the maternal realm with the help of prosthetics and spirit gum like Albin/Albert (Michel Serrault and Nathan Lane respectively) in La cage aux folles/The Birdcage (1978/1996) or Daniel Hillard and Euphegenia Doubtfire. The genre, if one can suggest there is one, straddles comedy and tragedy and rarely offers anything in between.
When Harris Glenn Milstead shimmied and sashayed in his little (operative word being ‘little’) numbers, people took notice. Wearing a dress seemingly freed him and enabled him the life he coveted, he unapologetically introduced the world to his alter-ego: Divine. And oh, what a woman – loud, brash, crude, angry and trashy (often by her own admission). Lady Divine didn’t give two flying kitten-heels what people thought of her and with the help of childhood friend, John Waters, and make-up artist/costume designer extraordinaire Van Smith, they not only set out to prove that she was, not only, the most beautiful woman in the world but the filthiest.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s I am Divine is a labour of love, mixing contemporary interviews with archival footage, the documentary is warm, affectionate, and presents a touching portrayal of a larger-than-life transgressive – yet defining – drag artist and actor who was deeply loved by his friends, family and contemporaries. While Milstead’s story is far from unusual: ‘Glenny’ was chubby and bullied for his effeminate nature, his mother even took him to the Doctor who confirmed (!) that there was more femininity lurking beneath the surface of the masculine Milstead child. At 17, he met John Waters and the rest, as they say, is history. Divine was determined to be a star and, wherever possible, look like Elizabeth Taylor while doing it.
Schwarz paints a riotous, compelling, and wonderfully edited picture celebrating the generous, sweet-natured and fearless icon without ever resorting to the overtly camp or sugary twee. There is some darkness – the drug-taking, the food addiction that more than likely contributed to his untimely death but Divine made the most of his time in the world, as one time member of theatre troupe The Cockettes, a solo recording artist, stand-up comedian, and as an actor. Not just any old actor either, an evolving and defining one – he was trash-talking Babs Johnson (Pink Flamingos) and Dawn Davenport (Female Trouble); frumpy and unfulfilled housewives Francine Fishpaw (Polyester) and Edna Turnblad (Hairspray); hot-blooded Rosie Velez in Comedy/Western Lust in the Dust. There were male counterparts too (like Earl Peterson and Arvin Hodgepile) and he even enjoyed on-screen clinches and kisses with childhood-crush, Tab Hunter.
Sadly, Divine passed away in his sleep the night before he was due to start filming as a series regular on Married With Children, and as this documentary states unequivocally; he was adored. A man who had a heart as big as his body, an icon to many but especially those who have ever felt different.