The wonderful Maryland Film Festival starts next Wednesday. Over the next few days, I'll be posting reviews of select titles from the event.
To those of us from Baltimore, it sometimes seems that Divine, the plus-sized “cinematic terrorist” with the double-stacked eyebrows, freakishly receding hairline, and bad-girl-on-a-bender attitude, emerged, fully formed, on our movie screens.
But, of course, Divine was just a character—his portrayer, Glenn Milstead, didn’t even see himself as a drag queen (although the world would never quite agree)—just an actor playing a particularly fabulous part.
In that sense, I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwartz’s affectionate, lively, and appropriately ribald documentary about Divine, featuring great interviews with his friends, family, and admirers (including John Waters, Pat Moran, and The Village Voice’s Michael Musto) is best seen as an origin story.
We find out about Milstead’s childhood. He grew up closeted and confused in Baltimore. (His refuge from bullying at school was food, a lifelong compulsion.) He had a love of hair and makeup—when he and his high school girlfriend (gamely interviewed in the film and as adoring of Milstead as everyone else seems to be) went to the prom he styled both of them.
Life changed for Milstead when he bonded over Russ Meyer films with a budding punk auteur named John Waters.
It was, indeed, Waters who dreamt up the Divine persona—a sort of plus-sized vixen stuffed into a too-tight dress, with a love for filth and a surly attitude—but Milstead made her come to life, and created a world-wide phenomenon in the process.
True confession: I didn’t know much about Divine beyond the scope of Baltimore, but she was quite the superstar—rubbing shoulders with Mick Jagger at the opening of Studio 54, packing houses off-Broadway in plays like The Neon Woman, and even topping the charts as a disco drag queen. It was a dream come true for Milstead—who had always wanted to be a movie star but never felt it was a realistic goal. Milstead, however, also wanted to break free of this character, which he saw as both a blessing and a curse. Ironically, he had been offered a recurring role—as a man—on the hit sitcom Married With Children just days before he died of a massive heart attack.
Milstead’s untimely death adds a melancholy air to this otherwise joyful, freewheeling film. (Waters still seems on the verge of tears when he talks about it)—which also gives you a great entry into the go-go pre-AIDS world of gay drag culture. You’ll leave the theater feeling that Divine lived up to her name—both as a movie star and a human being.
For a complete schedule of the films playing at the Maryland Film Festival, see: http://mdfilmfest.com/festival/film-guide