By Chuck Wilson
She called herself Divine, and for a generation of appalled but delighted cult film fans, the foul-mouthed, dog-poop snacking, gleefully plus-sized drag queen was the holy terror of cinema. To star in a series of films by writer-director John Waters, including Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Glenn Milstead, a queer lad from Baltimore, transformed himself into Divine, a fierce, fearless diva extraordinaire. The movies that Waters and Divine made together were rude and crude but never mean, although Divine definitely wasn't the kind of gal you invited to Sunday supper.
In March 1988, the night before he was to begin a new role (not in drag, but as a man) on the sitcom Married with Children, Milstead, age 42, died in his sleep. It was a tragedy, but filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, whose loving, exuberant documentary I Am Divine screens this weekend at Outfest, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, believes that Milstead went to bed that night “at the peak of his happiness.”
A week earlier, Hairspray, Waters' love letter to 1950s Baltimore, had opened to rave reviews and mainstream box-office success. Divine's performance as Edna Turnblad, a housewife trying to guide her daughter (Rickie Lake) through the tumultuous turns of the civil rights era, earned glowing notices, and would later earn Milstead an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. “All Glenn wanted was to be a movie star,” Schwarz says. “He wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor, and his dream came true.”
The Divine documentary is likely to be a career high for Schwarz, 43, who's spent the last decade making films about half-forgotten Hollywood renegades, from B-movie producer-director William Castle to gay porn star Jack Wrangler, as well as film historian Vito Russo.
“I guess I am on a mission,” admits Schwarz, a native New Yorker now living in Los Angeles. “I've always been attracted to larger-than-life personalities, particularly people who created specific personas for themselves. I fall in love with these people. I want others to value them as much as I do.”
The time is right, he thinks, to “re-engage people with Divine's artistry and with his bravery especially. Glenn was bullied and abused and tortured as a teen, but once he found a group of people to accept him, to embrace him, he blossomed. By creating the character of Divine, with John, Glenn made a path for himself. Be yourself. That was the lesson of Divine's life, and it's more resonant now than ever.”
It was Waters who came up with the name “Divine” but when he first met Glenn Milstead, in the mid-1960s, they were teenagers, living six houses apart in a Baltimore suburb. “They literally went to high school together,” says Schwarz. “They were 17-years-old when they met. How many artistic collaborators meet when they're 17 and continue making films into their forties?”
Rarely-seen footage from the 8mm shorts Waters made with Divine and their friends are a highlight of the documentary, but it's Divine's mother, Frances Milstead, who steals the show. Schwarz interviewed Divine's mother shortly before her death in 2009. Her stories of raising a pudgy, effeminate boy in 1950s America are deeply moving. Schwarz finds her efforts heroic. “She knew he was gay, she knew what that was, but she didn't reject him. She accepted him, she loved him, she protected him. No one messed with her boy.”
When Glenn, who had been living a secret life as Divine, officially came out to his parents, it didn't go well. They argued, and parents and child didn't speak for a long time, although Schwarz doesn't see this as homophobia, but as parental self-protection. “In those days, Divine was crazy,” he says, laughing. “He was too much to handle. They had to separate.”
Maybe Divine needed to be set free. After Pink Flamingos, and before Female Trouble, she was invited to perform in San Francisco with the revolutionary drag troupe, The Cockettes. On the flight out, make-up artist Van Smith gave Divine what would become her signature look — exaggerated, painted-on eyebrows, a shaved head, and eyebrow coloring that rose to the forehead.
“In those days, you could still go right out to the plane, and when Divine stepped out,” Schwarz reports, “the Cockettes were there, in full drag, screaming 'We love you, Divine!' They put her on a luggage cart and wheeled her around the tarmac, cheering.”
San Francisco was a triumph, but the decade ahead brought challenges, including how to pay the bills, how to live (and love) as a gay man, and increasingly, how to find a way past the Divine persona. By the time he went to sleep on that March night in 1988, the tide had turned. Glenn Milstead, male actor, had a future.
“I don't want audiences leaving the theater feeling sad over the loss,” Schwarz says, “but feeling that Divine lives on, and is watching over us all, as a kind of spirit animal.”
The filmmaker pauses, and then continues, his voice full of wonder. “Look at us. Still telling Divine stories, all these years later. She's an icon of cinema. I expect to see a Mount Rushmore of cult movie stars someday, with Divine front and center.”
I Am Divine screens at Outfest on Sunday at 9:30 p.m.