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Jul

Film review: I Am Divine

divine1After a screening at the 2013 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, this eagerly-awaited documentary finally receives a UK cinema release thanks to LGBT-friendly distribution company, Peccadillo Pictures. As its title suggests, this is a much-deserved look back at the life of Harris Glen Milstead, better known by his alter ego: the drag creation, Divine.

 Milstead was born in 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland. Raised as an only child in a fairly typical, middle-class American family, he was bullied for being effeminate when he was young. In his late teens, he went to beauty school and found work as a hairdresser, learning how to sculpt the towering 'beehives' for his female clients that were so popular in the 50s and early 60s. It was around this time that he became firm friends with budding teenage filmmaker John Waters and a gang of fellow outsiders. Milstead began experimenting with drag, dressing as his beloved Elizabeth Taylor and attending underground drag balls. Waters began making short films, dubbing Milstead 'Divine'.

Though at first only shooting films for their own amusement, they found that a handful of cinemas in San Francisco and New York were willing to screen their offerings at midnight screenings for hippies and potheads. Cult fandom followed, and suddenly, the idea of the fat, camp kid from Baltimore becoming a movie star didn't seem quite as ridiculous as Milstead may first have thought.
Aware of their audience, Waters and Milstead conspired to produce material that would push the envelope and shock the seemingly unshockable. The result was Pink Flamingoes (1972), in which Divine played the role of Babs Johnson: "the filthiest person alive". In the film's most memorable scene, Divine followed a dog around until it defecated and then ate its poo: even the potheads were outraged, and the duo's infamy was secured.

Milstead's fame continued to grow, helped by several hi-nrg dance hits and tours of the world gay clubs. The films became bigger but, by a cruel twist of fate, it was shortly following the release of his and Waters' biggest film, Hairspray (1988) – which finally brought him Hollywood success – that Milstead died from a heart attack. He was only 42.

I Am Divine is a straightforward look back at Milstead's life made by a younger fan – director Jeffrey Schwarz. It benefits from interviews with many of those who worked with Milstead – including John Waters, Mink Stole and Ricki Lake – and Milstead's mother, Frances. Poignantly, Milstead was estranged from his parents for several years when they discovered that he was dressing in drag. It was only after his mother caught sight of Divine on the cover of a gay magazine that she realised what a star he had become, and a much-longed-for reunion took place.
Divine continues to inspire a fierce fondness and fascination because, in some respects, he was the ultimate outsider – the be-wigged monster who made other outsiders feel not quite so freakish or weird. This lovingly-crafted film reveals the real story behind the make-up and polyester. David Hudson
On release: 18 July 2014
Rating: **** (4/5 stars)


 

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