Published May 29, 2013Harris Glenn Milstead was an unlikely candidate for stardom. But even as a young child in Baltimore, he always possessed some ineffable quality that made him stand out from the crowd. When he eventually donned women's clothes and adopted the ostentatiously trashy persona of Divine, everyone found out exactly what it was.
Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary I Am Divine does an exemplary job of charting the actor's ascension to prominence and, ultimately, the role model he still represents to outcasts everywhere.
Interviews with Divine's mother and family friends illuminate Glenn's early struggles to fit in, diagnosed at an early age by a doctor to be "more feminine than masculine." After becoming something of a troublemaker, his mischievous energy was fortunately harnessed for productive means when he met the filmmaker John Waters. In many ways, it's hard to tell the story of Divine without also telling the story of Waters, and his presence here in interviews goes a long way towards expressing the special bond the two of them formed.
From early rough films in which Divine (christened with the name by Waters merely on a whim) slowly began assuming a larger role to his seminal work in cult classics like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, the struggle for success is detailed in all its gory detail. Once Divine was established as a brand name through frequent appearances on screen and stage, there became a need for the man behind the make-up to prove that he was more than just a one-note novelty act.
It would be hard to imagine a much more comprehensive and slick rendering of Divine's life than this, with those close to him leaving few stones unturned in telling the tale. Among the interesting topics discussed are the evolution of Divine's garish look, his infamous eating of dog faeces in Pink Flamingos and his voracious appetites for sex, sweets and marijuana. This proclivity for excess may have had a hand in Divine's early death from a heart attack in 1988 at only 42 years old, leaving the film to cull from his in-depth interviews on talk shows like Larry King.
There is a sense that Divine may have been driven by the need to fill an immense hole within him, one that was likely caused by his parents disowning him when he came out of the closet at a young age. Though his passing was undeniably premature, it's made even more tragic in considering how it occurred at an odd time when nearly every aspect of his life seemed to finally balance in perfect harmony. (Automat Pictures)