Picking the opening night attractions at festivals can be a tough call, and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (full programme here) took a chance by kicking off last Thursday with Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine. Documentaries have their allotted place within the festival, as do fond glances back at long-dead trash icons. I Am Divine—which pieces together the life of the drag queen, shambolic disco hag and (most of all, as the film reminds us) skilful comic actor who was born Harris Glenn Milstead—is both. But I’m guessing that the film’s inspirational, euphoric tenor is what made it a cert for the opening slot. Divine is someone who has been absorbed into the collective consciousness of filmgoers raised on the trash fantasies of John Waters. He’s become almost cosy. So a film like this is important in disinterring the star’s image, talent and legend. It made me fall in love with Divine all over again.
As I watched the film, I realised that my first encounter with Divine had been an uncharacteristic one: I had seen him initially in one of his rare male roles, as the preening crime boss Hilly Blue in Alan Rudolph’s stylish modern noir, Trouble in Mind, from 1985. You can glimpse him around 0.50 and 1.45 in the trailer for this excellent but largely forgotten film. It must be one of the few occasions on which Divine was out-glammed by another actor—in that case Keith Carradine, who steals the picture with a succession of increasingly spaced-out and whipped-up hairdos. Though one interesting nugget revealed in I Am Divine is that the drag performer was perturbed to find the role he would traditionally have played—that of schoolgirl heroine Tracy Turnblad—going to the young Ricki Lake, while he had to make do with playing Tracy’s indomitable mother, Edna. A great part all the same, but the cause, according to Lake, of some initial on-set prickliness.
Divine dabbled in playing men—there’s a choice moment in my favourite early Waters film, Female Trouble, where the wonders of cinema enable him to play both rebellious schoolgirl Dawn Davenport and the gnarly middle-aged slob who impregnates her. As well as playing Edna in Hairspray, he also appeared in that film as a racist TV station boss. And he would have become a recurring (male) regular on the sitcom Married With Children had he not died the night before shooting was due to start.
Of course, it is as one of popular culture’s most cheerfully abrasive, confrontational and demonstrative drag queens that Divine is best known. The documentary’s use of stills and archive footage presents us repeatedly with that half-leering, half-cheeky face: the hairline shaved severely high, the arched painted eyebrows curling across the forehead like whips. What the film does exceptionally well is to explain the soul behind the inches of slap: from cherubic child to eager-beaver teen who did the hair and make-up for his high-school sweetheart (the film even tracks her down for a poignant interview) to outsider glam icon who channelled the rage of his misfit years into a persona as gloriously trashy, tacky and oversized as a parade float (and every bit as sincere). Interviewees include Waters, who has some brilliant observations on how the young Divine tried to fit in around their native Baltimore, and Divine’s mother, who has died since the film was completed, but who gives a genuinely wrenching account of her estrangement from her son, and their eventual reconciliation.