Documentary Explores Life and Times of ‘Divine’

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There's never been anyone quite like Harris Glenn Milstead.

The awkward, chubby kid from Baltimore achieved worldwide fame as the incomparable Divine, the first drag queen to become a mainstream celebrity. Divine's 1988 death from heart disease at age 42 was a particularly cruel twist of fate, and not only because of his age.

He had dreamed of stardom his whole life. After having played a male role in the film noir mystery “Trouble In Mind” (1985) and getting rave reviews for his role as a frumpy housewife in John Waters' “Hairspray” (1988), Hollywood finally called. Cast on the hit sitcom “Married With Children” and in the horror film “Freddie's Dead: The Final Nightmare,” he died before either role could be shot.

Divine's dream had come within his reach and touched the tips of his fingers, only to be stolen from him by the grim reaper.

Openly gay filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz now offers “I Am Divine” a lovely look back upon a most unusual life and career. The film goes back to "Glennie's" (as his mom called him) boyhood in Baltimore, where the future underground celebrity found solace in food when he became the target of neighborhood bullies.

Frances Milstead, who died at 88 in 2009, remembers a shy, lonely obviously gay boy who became obsessed with movies at an early age. When the Waters family moved in up the street, "Glennie" found his cinema soulmate.

In 1972, Waters wrote and directed the hilariously shocking film “Pink Flamingoes,” in which Divine famously ate a dog's feces right out of the dog's tush. In Waters' “Female Trouble” (1974) Divine played a male (briefly) who raped his female self. Nothing was sacred in these outrageous sleaze-fests: audiences lined up for sold out midnight screenings. Divine became a celebrity.

For the next few years he was a popular act in gay clubs and in off-Broadway productions, which spoofed both his onscreen persona and classic Hollywood films. Yet he yearned to be taken seriously as an actor, and to be loved for himself.

Food was his primary source of comfort. Friends and co-stars recall him seated before the refrigerator, eating everything in sight. They also recall a performer who took his work very seriously. As his weight ballooned, Divine went on tour to promote a series of dance music hits he'd recorded. He pushed himself beyond the point of endurance. At least five years before he died, friends and co-stars, many of whom participated in Schwarz's film, began to worry about his health.

“I Am Divine” follows Milstead across the years on the roller coaster ride that was his life and career. He was overjoyed to find himself co-starring alongside Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter (now openly gay) in Waters' more subdued “Polyester” (1981), which got him his first good reviews from the mainstream press. Yet getting work remained a struggle for the actor who was so unusual looking whether he was in drag or not.

If only he'd lived a few more years.

There are no surprises in “I Am Divine” his life story has been well known for decades. What the film does achieve is afford viewers a look inside the star's heart and soul. When the final credits begin rolling, viewers might feel as though they've gotten to know who Divine was and how he felt about his lot in life.

It's an unforgettable portrait.


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