★★★★★ | I Am Divine

As Jeffrey Schwartz’s excellent new documentary I Am Divine is released in the UK, The Gay UK’s film critic Roger Walker-Dack caught up with legendary filmmaker John Waters for a few personal words about his muse and great friend Divine.

John told us ‘When it comes toI Am Divine I have let Jeffrey be the one to speak, as it’s his film in this instance he’s the one who deserves the attention. I’m STILL shocked that Divine is dead! Divine had a great life in the UK, and he’d be thrilled that the film is being so well received.’

Glen Milstead aka Divine was unquestionably John Water’s finest actor and muse. Not simply because of his talent that was as outsize as his physique, but because like Waters he was both totally fearless and dared to push the boundaries of bad taste as far as he possibly could. And he did it all in such outrageous style and unfettered enthusiasm that made him such an iconic cult figure.

In filmmaker Jeffrey Schwartz’s new very upbeat documentary into this unique entertainer and character, we learn that Divine had always dreamt of being a movie star since he was a kid who had been picked in and bullied at school as being both effeminate and fat. And he did deservedly become one and was just about to parlay his major underground success into the mainstream with a (non-drag) part in a nationally syndicated TV sitcom when he dropped down dead in Hollywood after a massive heart attack the very day before filming was due to start. He was just 42 years old. Manager, Bernard Jay poignantly claimed that as Divine was at the peak of his career, he had at least died happily.

Divine and John Waters both grew up in Baltimore and met when they were teenagers. They made anarchic campy home movies together at the beginning with exaggerated characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogues. They were never meant to be shown outside of their wee band of local actors that included Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and David Lochary (the latter becoming a big love of Divine’s life before his own untimely death). But word got out and soon people were clamouring to see the films that got bigger and even bolder.

Water’s ‘trashy trilogy’ ‘Pink Flamingos’, ‘Female Trouble’, and ‘Desperate Living’ cemented Divine’s reputation as a movie diva, in particular, Flamingos which earned him the title of ‘the filthiest person alive’ after the notorious scene where he actually ate dog faeces. And after these successes, he also started to diverse his career taking starring roles in Off-Broadway shows, and becoming a very successful disco recording star. He added a whole new meaning to the word ‘fierce’!

Many of the interviewees that Schwartz included gave Divine great credit for expanding the concept of the drag queen from brash female impersonator into something much larger, more subversive and less gender specific. Yet without a single exception, none of the TV chat show hosts that interviewed him could deal with the fact that Divine was sitting opposite them in men’s clothing calmly stating that ‘she’ was a character that he played and not the person he actually was off the screen.

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Matinee idol Tab Hunter recounted the joy he had at working with Divine on two very successful movies ‘Polyester’ and ‘Lust in The Dust’. These were followed by ‘Hairspray’, which turned out to be Divine’s biggest hit and very last movie.

Schwartz beautifully captures both the joyous nature of Divine’s flamboyant life and also the great sense of sheer enjoyment he had. He includes the completely tasteless clip from ‘Eat Your Makeup.’ in which Divine played Jacqueline Kennedy in a grotesquely amusing re-creation of the Kennedy assassination just two years after the event. But he also shows the scene from ‘Multiple Maniacs’ where Divine’s character is raped by a giant lobster! A perfect epitaph.

Someone said towards the end of the movie … ‘after him, no-one can ever now be called Divine … he OWNS that title’. Too true.

An unmissable flawless movie.

The fabulous UK and Irish Cinema and VOD release of I Am Divine is one week away!