‘I Am Divine’ Review: The Story of John Waters’ Most Memorable Muse

By  · Published on October 25th, 2013

Editor’s Note: This review original ran as part of our SXSW coverage. The film is now out in select theaters.

Assimilation seems to be the order of the day. One of the arguments leveled against the “It Gets Better” campaign is that while it pushes for self-acceptance among queer kids, the “better” part actually seems to mean “normal.” That is, all the images it puts forth of a happy gay life after the misery of high school bullying are images of an assimilated life. If that’s true, it means the bullies haven’t been left behind at all – they’ve been internalized. But if we want to support the kids who can’t look forward to becoming “normal” somewhere down the line, we’d better start checking our archives.

History is full of the stories of bullied outsiders who learned to love themselves and went on to become strong icons. While maybe not the most kid-friendly, Divine was one of the biggest, most outrageous, proudly outsider and dangerously different gay cultural icons we have. And just as the forces of assimilation seem to be taking control of our memory, too, documentary filmmaker Jeffry Schwartz comes to the rescue with the release of his definitive Divine biographical documentary, I Am Divine, richly evoking the world of vibrant outsiders that Divine came to define.

Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead, the only child of middle-class Baltimore parents. His love of musicals and “dress-up games” attracted bullies: He never passed as straight, so he gave up trying. In the early 1960s, not passing meant bravely forging your own place in social structures set up to exclude your desires, out of necessity. So Harris Glenn Milstead threw his own parties (on his parents’ dime), appeared as an astonishingly passable Elizabeth Taylor with his then-girlfriend, and fell into a crowd of gay hipsters and freaks, John Waters among them. Waters shared his love of underground and countercultural art, and was the first to give Milstead the name with which he would become a legend: Divine. Waters and Divine began making movies together, Divine broadening and coarsening his female persona with each successive picture. Eat Your Makeup (1967) has Divine as Jackie Kennedy, but in Multiple Maniacs (1970) he plays a homicidal criminal who gets raped by a giant lobster.

Divine used his anger from being bullied as a child to give the outrage to his outrageous character. “Fuck you very much,” was his catchphrase, and shocking proclamations like “I give blowjobs to serial killers,” were only topped by the even more shocking “I eat white sugar!” A high (or low) point in his career was 1972’s Pink Flamingos where Divine competes for the title of “filthiest person alive” by eating fresh dog shit. With antics like that, it’s no surprise that the emerging punk scene adopted his visage on t-shirts. Divine was becoming the celebrity he always wanted to be.

At its core, I Am Divine is the story of accepting and celebrating your difference. Though Divine learned from an early age, as many gay men do, to compartmentalize his feelings and his modes of self-expression, he was lucky – and strong – enough to achieve success by unabashedly putting himself out there. Divine was overweight almost all his life, and yet the documentary about his life merits the subtitle The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. He achieved fame for appearing to debase himself, but he was nonetheless respected for they way he could command attention, whether on stage or in front of the camera. And his inability to “fit in” became the basis for his reign as outsider royalty.

The superb archival footage that I Am Divine provides should also be a useful catalyst for a new generation seeking ways to celebrate difference. The underground world that Divine moved in was vibrant, creative, and tragically almost decimated. But even people who lived through the period and kept faith with the older underground ideals will find things they didn’t remember about Divine’s whole story in this film. It’s one of those rare historical documentaries that might have the power to affect history on its own, by bringing memories and experiences from the past into the present.

Divine transformed his early outcast status into a truly distinctive persona, redeeming the “feminine” traits that brought schoolyard bullying by turning them into the basis for his international stardom. But his story is also one of redemption with his family. Before his death, he was lucky enough to reconcile with his parents, lavishing them with gifts and bringing them to his more “respectable” movies, and his mother even pops up as an interviewee here. By bringing his family in, along with collaborators and Divine-worshippers like Waters, Tab Hunter, Ricki Lake and Greg Gorman, director Schwartz helps honor his legacy “in just the way he always craved – as a serious artist and immortal star.”

The one flaw of the film might be the feel-good boosterism that any kind of positive biography risks exuding. It seems, at times, to be creating its own sort of “It Gets Better” Disney-esque pat redemption story. But that is actually what happened to both Divine and Waters. Divine was about to debut on the mainstream television show Married With Children when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack, and Waters is a sometimes presence at the multiplex. The bullied, overweight gay kid from Baltimore got the last laugh on his tormentors.

Schwarz has crafted a well paced and exceedingly watchable film that follows in his tradition of Vito (2011) and before that, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008) – telling stories of outlaws who refused to capitulate to even gay society’s expectations. Likewise it captures the exuberant spirit of a time in which difference brought together like minds and changed attitudes.

Divine certainly doesn’t fit in with the clean-cut, “virtually normal” ideal that some gay leaders are trying to promote. But neither do the gay kids getting bullied at school who are looking for models of self-acceptance and proud difference for support. I Am Divine gives a magnificent portrait of just such an “It Gets Better” story, and updates our understanding of a creative and influential underground scene at the same time. It shows what you can do with your anger at outsider status: Turn it inside-out, and then you’re the star.

The Upside: Superb archival footage and dozens of interviews give this documentary an authoritative feel not only for its topic but also for the era itself.

The Downside: The one flaw of the film might be the feel-good boosterism that any kind of positive biography risks exuding.

On the Side: Director John Waters has gone out of his way to promote this documentary as a tribute to his long time friend and muse.