Written by Kristen Lopez
I’ve loved The Little Mermaid since I was five years old. Ursula is one of my favorite Disney villains. So when I was about 13 and had the internet at my disposal I discovered the inspiration for my favorite villain was John Waters’ “muse,” Divine. To me, the name meant absolutely nothing until I grew older. For all my appreciation of John Waters’s macabre humor and the role Divine played in it, I never knew anything about Divine as a person or actor. Thanks to documentarian Jeffrey Schwartz I’ve come away with a greater appreciation for the man who was Divine.
Divine was “part outlaw, part serial killer,” “simultaneously sexy and monstrous,” but to those who knew Harris Glenn Milstead, the man behind Divine, he was a man many believed would “go on forever.” I Am Divine explores Milstead’s life, his transformation into the crass and beloved Divine, and the heights he reached before tragically dying at the young age of 42. Divine’s voice is ever-present with the aid of archival footage and sound bites, haunting the audience – a voice from beyond the grave – but also allowing for a deeper understanding of who Divine was. Harris Glenn Milstead suffered from low self-esteem due to battles with his weight and coming to terms with his sexuality. His mother, Frances Milstead (who passed away during filming), struggled with accepting her son for who he was and it’s heartbreaking to watch her realize her mistakes in pushing her son away due to his unconventionality. Divine became a constructive outlet for Harris Glenn Milstead, a way to exorcise his demons. Eventually, he became Divine entirely and never went back to the Milstead way of life.
I Am Divine touches on every element of Divine’s personality. It isn’t enough exploring his upbringing and the movies he made. You get a feel for the many layers of his personality, aided by the colorful cast of friends and fans peppering the film with their own thoughts on him. I could listen to John Waters tell stories all day and his tales of Divine are heartfelt, personal, and unique. Did you know Divine was a true actor and a world-class liar, able to fool a lie-detector test? This moment is contrasted with the actual naming of Divine which wasn’t a “hallelujah” moment according to Waters. It’s small moments such as these that provide the breadth and depth of discovering the real person behind the persona. Schwartz also interjects a fantastic sense of place in the documentary, spotlighting the wild, heady days of San Francisco and New York in the 1970s.
Schwartz’s documentary is about many things, but at its heart it’s the tale of a merry band of outcasts with Divine as Robin Hood. As much as this is Divine’s story there’s also examination of the love and trust between Waters and his main collaborator. All the movies the two worked on are highlighted with witty anecdotes about production and the various actors who got their start. Ricki Lake tells a charming story about Divine’s hesitation to befriend her because she wasn’t the lead. Eventually, the two became as close as their filmic counterparts. The various film clips employed, particularly from Waters’ earliest work are loveably ludicrous and have inspired me to seek them out. I mean, who else but John Waters would film his leading lady being raped by a lobster? In the end, Divine inspired not just Harris Glenn Milstead, but a host of others as evidenced by those interviewed, that being a movie star was possible for anyone. He transcended the preconceived notions of stardom, and we’re forever grateful due to the body of work he left behind.
I Am Divine is a midnight movie worth watching in the middle of the day! Schwartz’s documentary is tender in the right places, but not afraid to show the flaws of the man underneath the eye makeup and wigs. Divine’s story is inspirational and tragic in equal measure, but the stories-presented by both Waters, Divine himself, and a gaggle of others-celebrate a life lived to the fullest.
I Am Divine includes a feature-length commentary with Schwartz, producer Lotti Phariss Knowles, and actor Mink Stole; 30 minutes of deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.