Harris Glenn Milstead, an overweight actor, singer and stage performer unexpectedly died in 1988. To many, he wasn’t known as Glenn, but as Divine, drag queen extraordinaire who found stardom via filmmaker John Waters, as his chosen leading lady for a large number of his earlier, career-defining films. Divine will be remembered by many as that fearless performer who ate dog feces on camera in Pink Flamingo’s, but to the rest of those who knew and idolised him, he will be remembered as one of the sweetest and most generous people alive. I Am Divine wants to include you, the audience into that latter group, and introduce you not to an act, but to a man whose capacity for love far exceeded the attention he strived for.
Through archival footage, photos and endless interviews, director Jeffrey Schwarz recounts the life and legacy of Divine whilst simultaneously telling us a story of a gentle individual who merely wanted an audience. I Am Divine avoids reenactments and most other forms of fictional storytelling, and enriches his amazing story by showing Glenn and Divine as they really were. This is supported by interviews with friends, family, colleagues and celebrities alike. Some moments are given musical cues, yet it never feels forced. When the faint sound of a piano note is played during genuinely sad moments , its acknowledged but never distracting. The strong film-making and story prove efficient enough to evoke emotions without anything needing to be manufactured.
What makes this documentary feature particularly insightful is the structure. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking or original, but the patience and time given to revealing his life from its humble beginning to unpredictable end results in an overall inclusive feel to the film as a whole. We feel strangely like we are a part of his life as it unfolds on the screen. Seeing him as Divine and as Glenn provides a detailed and balanced observation into who he was; yet as the film progresses we come to the realisation, they are but the same person. Despite the make up and drastic change in manner and approach, Divine was an extension of Glenn. Interviewees switch between referring to him as Glenn and Divine but doesn’t matter; his kind and generous heart remains in both appearances, no matter how heightened one may seem. Though some referred to him as a transvestite, Divine and friends who knew him well would never mention him as such. The film also made the point [much like the people who knew him] of explicitly saying that Divine, although in women’s clothing, was a character, one which represented Glenn and his exuberant talents as a performer and actor, but was put away once the show was over.
Fans of John Waters’ films cannot miss I Am Divine. We see Waters speak throughout about his beloved muse, the one who knew no limits and much like Waters and his films, embraced everybody – freaks, geeks and the like. These are sweet people who loved everyone and didn’t care for those who glanced with judging eyes.
By Chris Elena
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Runtime: 90 minutes
I Am Divine plays at the 60th Sydney Film Festival at the following times:
Saturday, 15th June, 9:30pm
Sunday 16th June, 9:15pm