BIFF: I Am Divine

Documentary examines life of a drag queen

Harris Flenn Milstead as Divine

The filmmaker John Waters and his muse, the larger-than-life drag queen Divine, are responsible for some of the most bizarre and shocking films of the ’70s. Divine’s turns in Waters’ movies propelled her into a star of the era’s mostly underground gay subculture, culminating in Pink Flamingos, at the end of which Divine ate fresh dog droppings. She was, as Waters says in Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary I Am Divine, a “cinematic terrorist,” “sexy, monstrous, terrifying.”

Divine’s story begins with the birth of Harris Glenn Milstead, whose childhood doctor, according to his mother, proclaimed to be more masculine than feminine. An outsider bullied and teased for his hefty size and girlish demeanor, Milstead made his way into the social circle of Waters in Baltimore, and the rest in history. With Waters’ encouragement, Divine, a badass drag queen whose girth was only succeeded by her sass and attitude, emerged.

Waters has said that he always intended for Divine to be scary. With painted-on eyebrows, hairline shaved back to the top of the head, and copious amounts of make-up and eyeliner, Waters probably succeeded. However, as the documentary reveals, beneath the flashy, female exterior of Divine was a serious, hard-working professional trying desperately to achieve critical recognition as a serious actor. Divine was slowly making progress toward that goal towards the end of her life. Waters cast Milstead, as Divine, to play Ricki Lake’s mom in his 1988 film Hairspray, and to everyone’s surprise, Divine received mainstream recognition not just as a drag queen novelty but as a serious actor.

Milstead died at age of 42 in 1988, just after being cast to appear on Married With Children — as a man. Through archival interviews and exclusive ones conducted with Waters, Milstead’s mother, his family, friends and acquaintances, Schwarz constructs a sunny, highly entertaining profile of Milstead and Divine. At the essence of the film is a tale of a man who took the traits that made him different — his size and his femininity — and embraced them, forging an unforgettable career in the process.

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