Just as I was coming out I became aware of John Waters’ film “Pink Flamingos'” and its star Divine, a plus-size man performing as a women. I have the hosts of “At the Movies, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, to thank for piquing my interest. I was a sophomore in high school and the notorious underground film was finally getting screened in Chicago. The local critics were favorably reviewing a film that many other critics had lambasted. They showed a clip of Divine in that famous red fishtail gown and wearing towering eye make-up, declare herself “the most filthiest person alive.” I was hooked. I loved everything: Divine, the film, the filmmaker and most of all, the unabashed gay sensibility.
“I Am Divine,” the wonderful new documentary by the critically acclaimed filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, tells the life story of Harris Glenn Milstead, who transformed himself from a chubby bullied suburban teenager into actor of screen and stage, recording artist, and gay icon the world would come to know as Divine. Drag had been around for centuries, but Divine would bring it into the mainstream during the course of his brilliant career. Divine’s career blossomed just as Gay Liberation, as the LGBT movement was then called, was truly taking hold. Here was an openly gay man, performing as female who started off in zero-budget underground films, became the Midnight Movie Queen, and ended up acting in mainstream Hollywood films.
The Milsteads moved into John Water’s Baltimore neighborhood when they were in high school and the two became fast friends. After graduation, Glenn went to beauty school where he met David Lochary, and it was Lochary who turned Glenn onto drag. Glenn started to attend underground drag salons in New York and the die was cast. But even in flawless Elizabeth Taylor drag he felt an outsider, because of his weight. John Waters asked Glenn to star, in drag, be in his first film “Roman Candles” and told Glenn he was divine, so he should use the name Divine. They would make additional several shorts and two films “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs” before Divine was asked to join San Francisco’s Cockettes.
This was the start of Divine’s stage career and that starlit beginning is a thing of drag legend. The Cockettes performed at the Palace Theatre in North Beach and there the county’s first Midnight Movie, which, of course, had featured John Water’s films, followed show. The Cockettes knew they had to have Divine on stage with them, so they asked him to fly west. Glenn boarded the plane, along with his make-up artist Van Smith, but before they landed, Glenn and Van slipped into the bathroom and transformed Glenn into Divine. Divine was met at SFO by throngs of fans and he knew his fate was sealed. The Cockettes wrote vehicles for Divine such as “Divine Saves the World” and “Journey to the Center of Uranus.”
Divine is summoned back to Baltimore after Water’s was able to raise $10,000 to make the film that would put both the filmmaker and his muse on the map: “Pink Flamingos.” The shoot is grueling; as cast and crew endured freezing temperatures in rural Maryland, but the Dreamland company got through it fueled by drugs, cheap booze, and creative energy. Water’s channels P.T. Barnum to come up with a finale that will get his underground film attetsion. Cinematic legend happens when Divine pops a certain something into her expressive mouth. In a few months everyone will know who Divine is and what fully committing yourself to art means.
After one more John Water’s feature, “Female Trouble,” in which Divine stars as Dawn Davenport in the shock value epic that takes her from troubled teen to working girl to single mom to murderess, Divine is drawn to the New York stage. Her first show “Women Behind Bars” draws the likes of David Bowie and Elton John to sold-out performances. Divine gets great reviews. Divine is the toast of the town, gets invited to the opening of Studio 54, meets Andy Warhol, and catches the eye of a record producer. Divine moves to L.A. and becomes a recording artist. Her songs “Native Love,” “Born to Be Cheap” and “Walk Like a Man” are huge club hits and Divine tours all over the world to perform. An appearance on “Top of the Pops” sends the British into a tailspin.
Divine goes on to star in Water’s “Polyester,” a film enhanced by Odorama, a gimmick that involves a numbers flashed on the screen which indicates audience members are to scratch and sniff part of the card they were handed. I still have mine. Divine stars as a stressed out suburban mom, whose husband is under fire for owning a porn shop and whose children are a mess. The character starts a fling with a sleazy reported, played by 50s heartthrob Tab Hunter. This mainstream release boosts Divine’s acting credentials. Director Paul Bartel’s western spoof “Lust in the Dust” is next, but Water’s amazing “Hairspray” brings Divine his best reviews ever, including an acting nod from “The New Yorker’s” Pauline Kael.
Although Divine could be vicious on stage – a drag Don Rickles – Glenn was loved by all he touched. Director Jeffrey Schwarz rounds up John Waters, “Hairspray” co-star Ricki Lake, Tab Hunter, columnist Michael Musto, and countless family friends, devotees, and associates who bore witness talented performer. Schwarz masterfully blends interviews, photographs, film clips, and footage of performances to capture this larger-than-life talent. Divine’s fans were legion and her place in drag history is an important one. Divine left this mortal coil on the verge of acceptance by the show business community that didn’t quite know what to do with a drag artist who had real acting chops. Beginning in the mid-70s Glenn and would appear both as himself and as Divine in TV and print interviews to unapologetically explain he was a gay man acting in female roles. This was a giant step for the movement, brought more dignity to drag performance, and was a turning point for so many who felt that they simply didn’t fit in. For both his artistic and political contributions, the LGBT Community certainly will never forget Glenn Milstead and his Divine.
“I Am Divine” will be shown Saturday, October 19 at LGBTQI Days of Fils at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. For tickets call 707.829.4797 or go to www.sebastopolfilmfestival.org.