November 20, 2014

I Am Divine

I Am Divine explores the life of director John Waters' most conspicuous product, the 300-pound drag queen Divine. Fans of John Waters will surely enjoy this, and people who are interested in underground movies of the 1970s will likely find it very interesting too. I discovered John Waters in a book on midnight movies when I was around 14 years old. At the time I was obsessed with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. This book, which I stumbled across at a wonderful used bookstore in Jacksonville, had a chapter on Night, so naturally I bought it. Once I had gobbled up the chapter on Romero's film, I slowly became interested in the other chapters, each of them dedicated to a different cult classic: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, Eraserhead, and Pink Flamingos. I was too young to seek any of these movies out at the time, but I filed them away in my head and planned to eventually see them. (Well, I still haven't seen El Topo or Eraserhead, but I'll get around to it some day.)

It's kind of amazing how something can open up a door to a whole world. Being a fan of Night of the Living Dead is what got me interested in how movies are made. It also inadvertently turned me into a John Waters fan. I don't really like Pink Flamingos. Aside from the unsavory content (including Divine's famous scene where he eats actual dog shit), the movie is actually kind of boring. It's cheaply made (although this is one of its charms, in a way) and stagey. But it's also angry in a very exciting, entertaining way, and Divine, all done up in that red fish-tail dress and that big Elizabeth Taylor wig and that excessive, scary eye makeup, is quite a sight, the biggest and best production value of that film.

What's heartbreaking to discover is the fact that Divine (also known as Glen Milstead) was tormented as a child and a teenager, constantly being harassed and even beaten up at school. He was lonely until he discovered a group that accepted him. The film explores all the ways Divine tried very hard to be loved, to be the center of attention. He wasn't just a drag queen. He made fun of drag queens by becoming the exaggeration of a drag queen. And he also didn't wear his costumes outside of work. When he was off camera, he was wearing regular men's clothing. 

I Am Divine is a difficult movie for me to evaluate critically because I'm so interested in the people involved, and because I am such a fan of John Waters. I'm not sure how someone who isn't into Waters' movies, or someone who is maybe put off by Divine's brash, gaudy mock-offensiveness, would take this loving documentary. And it's extremely hard to objectively say whether I Am Divine is successful as a doc. Seeing all the people who contributed to this, including Divine (via archive footage) and Waters, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Pat Moran, feels like some kind of cult movie family reunion. 

Now available for streaming on Netflix. 

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