Movie review: I Am Divine scratches surface of John Waters muse

I Am Divine
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Starring: Ricki Lake, John Waters, Divine
Directed by: Jeffrey Schwarz
Running time: 90 minutes
Parental guidance: Mature themes
Jeffrey Schwarz’s tender movie biography I Am Divine tells that old story: a bullied gay high school kid who dreams of being Elizabeth Taylor finds his true voice as a 300-pound transvestite, makes a big splash by eating dog poop in the movie Pink Flamingos (director John Waters once said, “If someone puked, it was like a standing ovation”), and parlays a campy persona — kabuki eye makeup, skin-tight dresses that accentuate belly fat, angry declamations of beauty — into a career as an underground actor, disco recording artist and, eventually, acceptance: the offer of a regular job on the coarse TV sitcom Married With Children.
It’s the American dream, at least as envisioned by Waters, whose droll wisdom — “I love everything that’s bad about America” — helps give I Am Divine that soupçon of once-removed irony that helped make Divine what he was.

The wonder is that I Am Divine remains a warm-hearted portrait of a cheerful guy. Divine, né Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in Baltimore where he went to high school with Waters, and grew up wanting only to be famous. He wasn’t exactly an ordinary kid: the girl he dated for five years recalls how he always wanted to do her hair and makeup. But he was a kind man, if overly fond of food, and he fell in with Waters’s group, called Dreamland, a bunch of outsiders who began to make freaky movies.
Milstead enjoyed dressing as a woman. Waters called him Divine, and Milstead immersed himself in the personality. In their second movie, Eat Your Makeup, Divine plays Jackie Kennedy, complete with pillbox hat, crawling out of the back of the limousine as her husband is assassinated. It was made in 1965, two years after the real killing. Waters says no one thought it was very funny.
I Am Divine traces his rise into the heights of the underground: San Francisco drag shows; outrageous films in which he appeared as a sort of possessed Jayne Mansfield, bosomy and obscene; New York stage work; and an eventual move toward the mainstream (Polyester, co-starring Tab Hunter, an early Milstead crush). He even cut some disco records, although he was banned from British television. (Tabloid headline in London: “Eecchhh!”)
Schwarz tells the story with many talking heads — Waters provides the brio but Frances Milstead, Divine’s mother, adds the heartbreak of a woman who disowned her child for decades — as well as photos of Divine with the famous (Andy Warhol wanted to meet him; David Hockney painted his portrait) and a few tongue-in-cheek clips of educational films that spell out the straight world’s attitudes to drugs and homosexuality in those days.
Slowly, Milstead emerges from the Divine invention, and we meet a gentle man who longed to be accepted as a character actor on his own. Divine became a hindrance, just like the dog poop scene; a bit of fame that he wanted to leave behind.
I Am Divine doesn’t get under the skin of Milstead, but that may not be possible: he was layered in too many costumes, both physical and psychological, and his life became a performance. Divine was amusing, but not too deep, and whoever was in there with Divine disappears in the telling. Milstead himself, sadly, is no longer around to fill in the gaps.
Still, it’s an entertaining and accessible film, part cultural history and part immersion into the Waters world of excess, glamour and put-on. Divine “stood for all outsiders,” Waters says at the end. But his dream came true: he got famous doing it.
Movie review: I Am Divine scratches surface of John Waters muse Movie review: I Am Divine scratches surface of John Waters muse Reviewed by Glam Treat on 06:04:00 Rating: 5

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