SFF Review: I Am Divine
I AM DIVINE may be exactly the biographical documentary Harris Glenn Milstead would have wanted. It paints him as the serious artist and immortal star it seems he wanted.
Well at least that is how the director Jeffrey Schwarz, and the documentary frames him. I AM DIVINE is a tricky beast, it suggests a lot of heartache and misery but never likes to dwell on it too long. I AM DIVINE is indeed a very aggrandizing film, with its chief concern being to highlight the groundbreaking career of its star, Divine.
Opening with Milstead’s mother recounting memories of her slightly flamboyant son – who apparently was in excess of Y chromosome – while growing up in Baltimore. She speaks of the usual high school experience of the young Milstead being bullied and not finding his place. It’s all lovely motherly nostalgia, but the film really starts to become fascinating when we are introduced to some of the Baltimore artist that would follow Milstead to success, and when Milstead finally embraces his alter-ego, the most beautiful woman and the filthiest person alive; Divine.
Milstead’s response to the traditions of drag, and its circuit, is only briefly touched on in the film. But what is presented is Milstead reacting against the rigid drag culture of men dressing as beautiful, famous women. Wanting to be different, Milstead instead embraces his heavy figure and totally subverts the actions and the culture of the drag queens. It is presented as a small, and almost insignificant moment in the film, but of anything I saw, it gave me the greatest insight into this man’s thought process, and his reaction to the structures around him.
Of all the talking head interviews, John Waters is, not surprisingly, the most engaging and the one with the most insight. Waters has been making the rounds as a commentator in these kinds of underground film documentaries for a few years now (Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream should be the next step for anyone interested in the film portion of this documentary), and when he speaks it’s easy to see why. As you may expect Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray get royal treatment, as they are what Divine is most recognized for. We also follow Divine through what appeared to be completely grueling disco tours, and in New York as a stage actor.
The third act of the film decides to wind back to Milstead and his family. The film appears to try very hard to link Milstead’s excessive consummation of food to his misery with no longer having a connection with his family. It is here that we are taken away from the bizarre career of the man and stuck dwelling on mundane family issues. It’s a shame because it lags, and feels very flat, but I guess you can’t help but think it is very sweet.
Overall, I AM DIVINE is an interesting film, providing great insights into a career that is completely unique to its time, and the individuals involved. But the career is the most interesting thing, I am not sure we needed the inclusion of the man’s sad, but ultimately uplifting family story.
I Am Divine will be showing at Sydney Film Festival over the weekend, the 15th and 16th of June. Buy tickets HERE
Words by Luke Letourneau