Special Guest writer for Salty Popcorn on this review of I AM DIVINE is Lady Morgan Bell, a writer and blogger who was the first I met when I started writing just over 5yrs ago now. She has a very unique look on life and writes about some of the most interesting things I have read. She was one of the most supportive people I have met when I started out and was always there to offer advice or shortcuts to make things easier. She has moved into being a worker for the man and does not write as much as she used to but her love and support for the queer community is incredibly inspiring and when I saw this trailer I knew she had to be the one to review it – so without further ado and many thanks to Lady Morgan – enjoy her review below.
I AM DIVINE is a documentary by New York filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, whose extensive documentary film career includes bio-pics on Vito Russo (author of The Celluloid Closet), porn star Jack Wrangler, and behind the scenes looks at the films Rent, Philadelphia, and Hedwig.
The documentary explains that the persona of Divine was intended to be a larger than life beautiful woman, a caricature of a caricature of a Jayne Mansfield type. Divine was a parody of a drag queen. Divine was often hideous with a wig hairline half way down her head (more space for those eyebrows) and wearing outfits that a larger lady should never wear. She took the bravado and over-confidence of the typical “glamorous” drag queen and turned it on its head, inspiring (directly and indirectly) a culture of genderqueer pride.
It is notable that many critics refer to Divine as “a transvestite”. This may be due to a lack of nuance in queer language in the 70’s and 80’s, or it may be a genuine misunderstanding of what Divine was. A transvestite is a person (usually a straight male) who presents themselves as the opposite gender for sexual or emotional gratification, usually in the privacy of their own home. Divine was a drag queen and character actor persona of Baltimore’s Glenn Milstead, a flamboyant, and by all accounts, well liked gay man.
The documentary paints Divine as a gay public figure that people were drawn to at parties. Even dressed as a boy, Divine charmed and entertained all those that flocked to her, those lining up to be in the presence of someone defying and reinventing gender presentation. Divine was a social butterfly, like Capote, Warhol, and Wilde. Big in body and big in personality. Rubbing shoulder with Elton John and other celebrities, Divine was also a defining culture at Studio 54, The Cockettes, Tom Eyen’s (of “Dreamgirls” fame) off-Broadway comedy play “Women Behind Bars”, and the original film of Hairspray (1988 – with Ricky Lake).
This movie is a fascinating look at a queer icon and history maker. It successfully blends archive footage with interviews from counterculture film director John Waters (now a regular panellist on Bill Maher’s Real Time – also life-long friend, collaborator and coiner of the drag name “Divine”), clothing and makeup designer Van Smith (Serial Mom, Cecil B Demented), gay film critic Alonso Duralde (The Wrap, What The Flick), and many other friends, family, and co-stars. There are archive interview’s with Divine herself, and a chillingly frank interview with Divine’s mother, her last interview before her passing.
Divine had a jarring image, a cult persona, a weighty footprint, and an enduring effect on popular culture. If you didn’t know who she was before watch this film for a slice of of queer history. You will see a piece of every drag queen you know, and a champion of fat acceptance way before there was such a term. This film is also a testament to the fact that it does get better. It is the journey of a bullied, beaten, ostracised, and disowned little boy flowering into a the most beautiful woman in the world and a cultural game-changer.
I AM DIVINE has both an amazing website and a Facebook page which can tell you where it is playing next. Unfortunately no cinematic release in this country, at this stage, but it will be doing the festival rounds. If you are interested, as Morgan was, then head to their pages and tell them you want to see it.