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FDL Movie Night: I Am Divine

[Full disclosure: I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to fund I Am Divine since  Divine was a vital of part of my high school education, and his legacy lived on in clubs I loved like Dragstrip 66 and in today’s current crop of outrageous drag shows; and plus I wanted the Divine paper dolls.]

I Am Divine celebrates the life and career of movie star Divine who rose from the underground of Baltimore’s misfit youth to become an international film, stage, music and drag superstar, and died tragically the night before he was due on set to begin a recurring role on a hit television show  – as a man. With I Am Divine, tonight’s guest, Director Jeffrey Schwarz has created a film that honors Divine in just the way he always craved — as a serious artist and immortal star.

Divine’s life reads like the plot of a John Waters’ movie, fittingly, because Waters discovered and named Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead in 1945). A chubby kid whose pediatrician told Glen’s mother that the boy was feminine as well as masculine when Glen was ten. He was bullied and beaten in high school by a fellow student who lay in wait for him. Glen showed an aptitude for hairdressing and his parents told him they would pay for him to go to beauty school and would fund a spot for him at a salon.

Hairdressing in Baltimore in the 1960s provided Glen with an entré into the city’s gay, drag, and drug subcultures and he never looked back. He wanted to be a star–he came out in drag to his high school girlfriend/beard as Elizabeth Taylor. Meeting John Waters, a fledgling filmmaker who wanted to make the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history, provided both the star-to-be and his writer/director with the what they each needed.  Waters wrote films for Divine–the 1968 Eat Your Makeup in which Divine played Jackie Kennedy in a reenactment of the JFK assassination, The Diane Linkletter Story, Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, the seminal Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble–that celebrated Divine’s anarchistic, rebellious, angry and witty personality, while Divine completely trusted Waters as a director and friend.

Embraced by the San Francisco theater troupe the Cockettes, Divine’s fame quickly accelerated with the 1972 release of John Waters’ film Pink Flamingos, billed as an exercise in poor taste, which became a midnight movie sensation and a cult hit. After a series of credit card binges for parties, Divine came out to his parents as a gay, drag wearing film actor, who smoked pot. Divine’s  parents, who had asked him to never embarrass them, told him to go on doing whatever he was doing and to just forget that he had a mother and father. That would be the last time he would see them for decades.

Divine moved to New York and starred in the plays Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman, becoming the toast of New York’s glitterati. Divine was feted by Warhol, danced at Studio 54, hung out with Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and toured with his friend Elton John, developed a his own disco act touring the world.  Divine’s big, bold and beautiful drag persona struck a chord in the increasingly more visible gay communities. Divine’s film persona was an icon to counterculture girls and boys who embraced Divine’s rejection of societal mores, and Divine’s style and attitude was a major influence on punk rock and subsequent youth/underground movements. Divine helped break down barriers between the gay and straight communities by creating a character who accepted the freak, geeks, weirdos–all outsiders were welcomed in Divine’s world.

Eager to work with his muse again, John Waters developed the film Polyester for Divine, fulfilling the actor’s lifelong dream of starring opposite Tab Hunter.  Released in Odorama, the film came with a scratch and sniff card to be used at specific moments in the  film. In a departure from earlier roles, Divine showed a vulnerable side in his acting range, while Tab Hunter played the leading man with no trace of irony or self-consciousness.  The pair were reunited for Lust in Dust, Divine’s only film with out Waters helming, and it proved a challenging role for Divine who was struggling with health issues brought about by his weight.

But Divine was frustrated by Hollywood, which couldn’t find a way to cast him as an actor outside of drag. He said that he never really set out to play a woman, but

as a young aspiring actor you don’t turn down roles.

Meanwhile, his mother spotted Divine’s picture in a magazine and tracked down her son after seeing Female Trouble and admitting to fellow filmgoers that she was the star’s mother. Divine and his parents reunited and they attended the premier of Hairspray, proud of the the son they once rejected.

Hairspray was a watershed for both Waters and Divine. The director had made a film that was embraced around the world, both above and underground (it’s been remade with John Travolta playing Divine’s role of Edna Turnblatt, and has been turned into a hit Broadway musical). For once, Divine was not the lead, something he struggled with, but the success of the movie made him the mainstream star he had always dreamed of being. He reveled in the rave reviews, and set about to become an even bigger star.

His agent secured him a role, out of drag, on the hit show Married with Children; the morning the show was to begin shooting, Divine was found dead in his hotel room from a heart attack.

I Am Divine combines movie clips, rare home movies and photos, television appearances and live performance footage, with brand new interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto, Bruce Vilanch, mother Frances Milstead (who provided her final interview just months before she passed away), and many more of Divine’s family, friends, colleagues, and devotees.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.