Friday, March 31st, 2023

Documentary celebrating Divine

I Am Divine

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Premiered March 9, 2013 at South by Southwest Film Festival
Documentary (biopic)
90 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

September 23, 2014.

Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, I was sitting by a swimming pool at a Russian River  resort in northern California—I think Fyfe’s—and saw a quiet man with short-cropped white hair and a very different in demeanor, if not girth, form his outrageous drag queen persona. The latter was “Divine,” the mouse under the diva Harris Glenn Milstead (1945-88), star of various John Waters movies, most notoriously Pink Flamingoes.

The 2013 documentary film produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito) proclaiming I am Divine was an entertaining, even touching portrayal of Milstead in relation to Divine and to John Waters with clips from Waters movies, segments of what must have been a very extended review of Waters, Frances Milstead (the Baltimore housewife mother of the drag diva, who only found out her son had become a kind of star years after the Waters movies that put Baltimore on the underground film map), costar Mink Stole, and a high-school steady girlfriend whose name I have forgotten (she felt him slip away, but did not realize there was a flamboyant drag queen inside her quiet date).

Tab Hunter, who played the romantic lead with Divine in Polyester and Lust in the Dust also speaks affectionately of the professionalism of the actor (though Milstead/Diving was unable to stay mounted on a mule in shooting the latter movie). Waters and others make clear that Milstead did not want to be a woman (was not transgendered), had sexual partners without paying for them (a relatively long-term one with porn star Leo Ford), and was very happy to be about to begin a continuing character not in drag in Married with Children when he died of a massive coronary during his sleep. (There are Divine interviews of him in male dress as well as various appearances as a disco diva with two sort-of hits: “You Think You’re a Man” and “Native Love.” I must have seen a show at the Russian River resort, though it it the demure man sitting alone by the pool that I remember.)

Waters and others make clear that Milstead was stoned most of his waking hours and ate compulsively, including plopping down in a chair in front of the refrigerator and shoveling food into his mouth. Overeating was the vice that killed him at the age of 42, when he was happy about extending his career as a non-drag actor beyond the success of Alan Rudolph’s movie Trouble In Mind (which I have not seen, but will try to).

© 23 September 2014, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.