I Am Divine Movie Review
With an appropriate explosion of humour and colour, this documentary traces the life of a fiercely individualistic actor, digging beneath the surface to explore both his origins and his legacy. And frankly, it's about time someone documented the iconic cross-dressing performer Divine, who died at age 42 in 1988, just as his career was leaping into the mainstream. The fact is that this man completely changed music, theatre and cinema.
Born in Baltimore, Glenn Milstead played dress-up as a child and was routinely beaten up in school. He could never pass as a normal kid, so he never tried. Fortunately, at 17 he met John Waters and found a group of people who were outcasts like him. Waters renamed him Divine for his film Roman Candles, and the name stuck. Divine spent time in San Francisco developing the character while performing with the legendary Cockettes, then took the New York stage by storm and launched an international recording career., He also continued to rise in the ranks of cinema actors with performances in Waters' classics Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble, Polyester and the award-winning Hairspray, which crossed-over into mainstream success and led to a non-drag role as Uncle Otto in the hit TV sitcom Married... With Children. He died of heart failure in his sleep the night before taping his first episode.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz (whose previous film Vito documented the life of gay-rights activist Vito Russo) gives the movie a lively pace, as a wide range of colourful people talk about their experiences with Divine through the years, including his mother Frances Milstead who reunited with her son later in life. There's also extensive footage of Divine talking about himself in interviews he gave around the world throughout his career. Combined with extensive clips, backstage video and personal photographs, the film is a remarkably complex portrait of a talented artist who was excessive in everything: food, drugs and love. But he was also fiercely disciplined when it came to his work.
"It's my job to get out there are shock people," he said. And indeed his approach to everything broke barriers. Even his drag performances refused to fit into the usual mould, not only delivering anarchic stage shows but acting in movies with surprising sensitivity. In other words, for Glenn Milstead cross-dressing as Divine was his job, not his identity, and he took it very seriously. It took more than 20 years for mainstream critics to notice the talent beneath his flamboyant persona. And since he was taken far too soon, it's difficult to imagine how far he would have continued to push boundaries even now.