Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bigger Than Life: I Am Divine

I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwarz’s affectionate, scrapbook-style documentary about the actor Glenn Milstead, who achieved fame as his drag persona Divine, opens in early 1988, when John Waters’ Hairspray had its première in Waters’ and Milstead’s home town of Baltimore. It’s the logical high point of Divine’s career. Hairspray was the eighth feature film Divine appeared in, all but two of which were John Waters productions. (Before their 16-mm first feature, 1969’s Mondo Trasho, they also made three shorts together, including The Diane Linkletter Story, with Divine in the title role, and Eat Your Makeup, which included a re-enactment of the assassination of President Kennedy, with Divine, in a black wig and pillbox hat, as Jackie.)

Hairspray was a breakthrough for the two collaborators; a low-rent nostalgic musical comedy set in the early 1960s, the movie managed to satirize message movies while wholeheartedly embodying the all-accepting, liberating spirit that drives people to push past the boundaries of racial separation and repressive sexual identities. It’s a movie in which white and black kids don’t think in racist terms, because they enjoy dancing with each other too much, and are too turned on by each other, to accept social segregation. It was also the first of the Waters-Divine movies in which Divine wasn’t the leading lady; that role fell to the 19-year-old Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad the chubby star of a local TV dance show, whose celebrity challenges conventional standards of beauty.

Divine, who at that point had spent twenty years challenging those same standards, not just by dressing as a woman but by insisting on being seen as a style icon while, in Waters’ words, “wearing clothes that you would not wear when you were overweight,” frumped himself up to play Edna Yurnblad, Tracy’s mother. (He also appeared in a smaller role as a coarse male villain.) But Hairspray was their mainstream hit after years on the cult midnight movie circuit, and, crucially, the movie that finally got Divine offers to play male character roles, which he saw as the proof that he was finally going to be able to carve out a career for himself as a “legitimate” actor. He was scheduled to make a high-profile guest appearance on the season finale of Married… with Children when he died of a heart attack, in his sleep, four days before the movie went into wide release. He was 42.

John Waters and Glenn Milstead (Divine) at the 1988 Baltimore première of Hairspray

Glenn Milstead—a self-described “introvert” who recalls never having “really went out of the house until I was 16”—didn’t become Divine overnight, though the fact that he was “different” appears to have been one ill-kept secret. Waters says that he knew Divine was someone he wanted to meet when, during the drive to school, his own father would catch sight of Divine waiting for the bus, and shudder. I Am Divine also includes interviews with Divine’s mother, who chokes up a little when recalling a trip to a “pediatrician” who told her that her son was “more feminine than he was masculine.” She chokes up worse when, after “Glenny” confessed to his parents that he had been committing such transgressions as shoplifting and marijuana smoking, they threw him out of the house and disowned him. (She regretted it instantly, and reached out to him years later after seeing a photo of her son, heavily made up and in character as Divine, on the cover of a gay-interest magazine. She recognized his eyes.)

Besides Waters, the Henry Higgins figures in his life included Van Smith, a gifted costume and makeup designer who played Bob Mackie to Divine’s Cher, and who continued to work on Waters’ projects (as well as the Baltimore-based TV series Homicide until his death in 2006), and Divine’s “drag mentor” David Lochary. Lochary, who played such roles as the blue-haired Raymond Marble, who challenges Divine to a “filth war” in Pink Flamingos, introduced Divine to the whole concept of drag, and Smith took it front there, introducing such refining touches as shaving back his subject’s hairline to accommodate higher painted-on eyebrows. “There wasn’t enough room on the human face,” Waters explains, “for all the makeup Van wanted him to wear.” Although Waters was hell-bent on being famous, and Divine, Waters says, really wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor, their early movies together were done in the spirit of a goof. They thought they were funny, Divine says, and they also assumed that no one else would agree. That was part of what was so funny. (The JFK-assassination scene in Eat Your Makeup was shot in 1965, when it must have seemed as if Kennedy’s actual body was barely cold.)

Divine in Pink Flamingos
As uninhibited as Divine’s appeared to be in those early trash extravaganzas as Multiple Maniacs (which climaxes with the heroine being raped on a couch by a giant lobster—a scene that Schwarz plays accompanied with a voiceover by Divine’s mother as she says that she and her husband extracted a promise from Glenny that he would never do anything that might embarrass them), he and his career ambitions didn’t really blossom until the movies caught on with the midnight crowd at San Francisco’s Palace Theatre, which led to Divine going West to perform with the house drag troupe, the Cockettes. (I Am Divine incorporates some interview footage from The Cockettes, a terrific 2002 documentary directed by Bill Weber and Davie Weissman.)

Unlike the Cockettes, whose attempt to transfer their act to a Broadway theater was an expensive fiasco, Divine also took New York by storm, beginning with her performance as the prison matron in Tom Eyen’s off-Broadway play Women Behind Bars. As movie and TV roles were so few and far between, Divine spent a lot of time working onstage and touring. Touring was physically exhausting for him, especially given the amount of energy that went into his live performances, and when Divine wasn’t performing, he spent most of his time lounging around, eating and smoking pot. So the overweight star fell into a taxing regiment of swinging back and forth between periods of extreme sloth and extreme exertion, while growing ever more stressed about the future and the state of his career.

Divine and Jerry Stiller in Hairspray (1988).
Schwarz’s previous films include good documentaries on the exploitation auteur William Castle and the film historian and gay activist Vito Russo. With this subject, he’s got a foot in both of those worlds, though the gay-activist part has a difference. One of the interview subjects says of Divine, “There’s a lot of things he stood for, but he didn’t mean to!” Divine didn’t set out to rock the boat, but he did want to enjoy himself, and he was so weird that rocking the boat was just an inevitable result of him learning to enjoy being who he was. Then he decided that he loved performing enough to try to make a career out of it. Similarly, Waters says here that he didn’t set out to make a PG-rated, family-friendly mainstream movie with Hairspray; he started writing it, and that’s just how it came out. Sometimes now, when the media isn’t losing its mind over someone like Miley Cyrus, you read that the kind of pop provocation that Waters and Divine created doesn’t happen anymore because there are no more taboos to be smashed. It may be more likely that the spirit of playful innocence that served as a petri dish for Waters and Divine is harder to maintain now that we’re all so media-conscious and plugged into each other. Waters’ breakout hit Pink Flamingos started with Waters’ inspiration to build a movie up to the closing image of Divine eating a fresh dog turd on-camera; if a kid with similar attention-getting ambitions had that idea today, instead of going to the work of making a movie around it and trying to get it shown, he’d just film himself eating dog shit, or pay a homeless person to do it, then post the video to YouTube. (Waters himself has struggled to follow up Hairspray in the quarter-century since it came out. His few movies since then suffer not just from the loss of Divine but from the feeling that he’s straining to deliver something shocking and make good on his image.)

Divine inspired by Elizabeth Taylor

Everyone in I Am Divine seems to agree that it’s tragic that Divine died just when he was finally going to show the world what he could really do, but maybe Divine, who by all accounts was an endlessly generous person, could see it as a happy, if premature ending; he died at his moment of triumph, with nothing left to prove, and nothing but blue skies on the horizon. And he left behind an example for divas of all genders to admire and emulate: brassy, funny, and unapologetic about living for pleasure and having the body to show for it, he managed to suggest that, for a precious few, living fabulously is a better look than aging gracefully. Glenn Milstead may have grown up wanting to be Elizabeth Taylor, but did he ever guess that Elizabeth Taylor would spend her own later years as if she wanted to be Divine?

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment