The Screening Room, hidden along Princess Street of downtown Kingston, opened its doors on February 6th to celebrate one of the LGBTQ/alternative/drag communities’ most beloved and controversial icons in a documentary titled I Am Divine. I did not know what to expect of The Reelout Queer Film Festival as it was the first I had heard of Divine, let alone any drag performer but I was intrigued to understand what drag was about, why people did it and why so many loved it. When I entered the theatre I was surprised to find a full house of almost ninety moviegoers. When I left the theatre, I could see why even after death, Divine’s fans worked to his keep spirit alive. Dedication proved to be a reoccurring theme; Divine’s dedication to succeeding in his craft at any cost and the dedication reciprocated to him by his fans.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz fashioned this biographical story in chronological order through personal anecdotes recounted by friends, family and colleagues of the star. We watch him grow from a feminine young Harris Glenn Milstead playing dress-up to the fat, bullied high school boy still struggling to fit in. We see his career take off through sleazy parodies under the direction of his life-long friend, John Waters and his evolution into the larger-than-life persona, Divine – the self-proclaimed “filthiest human alive.” Each interview clip emanates a relaxed, comfortable tone, as the speakers openly share secrets to make the audience laugh out loud, cringe or both. The setting and background elements of cinematography play a secondary role to the images painted through storytelling. Anytime camera effects are added, they are made to match the grainy 80’s feel of the footage from Divine’s first films like Mundo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. It is clear the film was made as an intimate tribute to reflect how Divine would have wanted his life story to appear; professional, entertaining, shocking, and triumphant. His life, from the fallout with his family to their heartwarming reunion, embodies the ultimate queer performer’s version of an “It Gets Better” story.
Being an audience member felt as though I was amongst Divine’s close friends as they all laughed in unison at inside jokes while I had missed the punch line. It was then that I realized the intense sense of community his fandom had created. What’s more impressive is the reach of this fandom; his performing career which extended to audiences in across America and Europe literally served as a worldwide beacon of possibility to misfits everywhere. People were captivated by Divine even if they hated him because was he was absolutely engrossed in all he did. When he said he was the most beautiful woman alive, he believed it and whether you believed it or not, he did his job by getting a reaction out of you.
The tactics that led Divine to fame such as the infamous “eating dog feces stunt” in Pink Flamingos were so unconventional it is not surprising that many were critical of him. He challenged standards of beauty at the time and took “the age of excess” as it was known to new extremes, reclaiming the word beautiful to fit himself. He defied odds by proving a fat, gay [white] man could be a successful leading lady.
Ruminate on that. It’s hard not to see these two pictures and be left in awe. Divine’s ability to defy limitations inspired hope that really anything is possible. It is often forgotten that drag roles, similar to characters in movies are works of fiction and do not reflect the actor when the camera is not rolling. Many interviewed clips are included addressing the reoccurring question of whether Divine’s character on screen matched his personality off screen. One of the key points I learned about drag from this documentary is that one’s drag persona can and often will assume a name, gender, sexuality, voice and personality as a whole completely distinct from their day-to-day self. It was emphasized in the film while Divine was womanly, Glenn himself had never identified as one. I noticed the complications of gender categorizing throughout the film as some would refer to Divine as “him” and others as “her.” The blurred lines between transgender people, transvestites, cross-dressers and drag performers are a source for countless false assumptions about gender identity, sexuality and behaviour that each distinct communities must deal with. In a world of strictly enforced gender binaries, members of these communities can find themselves under extra pressure to defend and define their personal identity or else continue to be misrepresented.
As inspiring as his story was, the devil’s advocate in me must ask was Divine really the serious actor he claimed to be or were his movies only good for their outrageous publicity stunts? The film works to show how Divine grew over the years and how what he wanted for his career changed over time. By his peak, he did have the maturity to put down the glittered makeup and take on more mainstream roles such as that in the original 1988 Hairspray. Yes, I too was amazed to learn that John Travolta’s role in the 2007 Hairspray remake was inspired by Divine himself.
But is that just heteronormative me being uncomfortable with his extremely vulgar, out-there ways and labelling it immaturity? Am I wrong for congratulating him on eventually landing ”normal” male and female lead roles? It’s hard to say. In one way, it is not wrong because that was in fact Divine’s dream all along; to be taken seriously and show his versatility as an actor. Divine convinced people to overlook his gender and was privileged by his white skin to be able to fit the mainstream niche. Had he been of colour during that time period, his independent films may have received attention but opportunities in the mainstream movie world would have been extremely limited, even for cis-gendered people of colour. In another light however, Divine was a role model to many and his progression away from underground culture could be interpreted as encouraging to his followers that only mainstream success is real success. The bittersweet end is that no one will know where Divine’s life and career would have gone but he is now and forever remembered as a symbol for anyone who has felt like an outsider.
For Harris Glenn Milstead, being Divine was his creative outlet, trademark and his vessel to follow his dreams. For his fans, Divine was a wonder to watch, a raw interactive entertainer and a reminder that they could be whoever they wanted to be and they would not be alone. And for anyone who loves a story about an underdog, this is one that must be congratulated.
“The things that make me different are the things that make me.”
― A.A. Milne
I Am Divine. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. Perf. Harris Glenn Milstead, John Waters, Mink Stole. Automat Pictures, 2013. Film.