A new documentary called "I Am Divine" looks at the life and career of the underground drag queen Divine. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following report for NY1.
The first time I ever saw the underground drag-queen superstar Divine, it was at a showing of John Waters' midnight classic "Pink Flamingos." Watching Divine play the filthiest person alive, I laughed, I got grossed out by the infamous scatological ending, but mostly, I was amazed, maybe even a little scared. I couldn't believe I shared a planet with anyone who looked like this, talked like this, or did these kinds of things.
Divine went on to have a major career, not just in John Waters films but on the underground theater and nightclub circuit, and he is now the subject of a very smart and affectionate documentary called "I Am Divine."
The film is scrupulously well researched, so even if you already know a lot about Divine, you'll be fascinated at the photographs and testimonials that document how he started off as Glen Milstead, a sandy-haired teenager with a sweet smile in early-'60s Baltimore, and how, through the influence of drugs and mostly gay juvenile-delinquent friends, he transformed himself into a cross between Jayne Mansfield and the Wicked Witch of the West, with a touch of Godzilla.
Projecting a seething, nearly psychopathic anger, Divine was as much monster as drag queen, and he was mesmerizing. Yet underneath it all, which is to say, underneath the fishtail gowns, massive fake breasts, and visionary makeup by Van Smith that turned him into an obesely glamorous gargoyle, Divine remained a very sweet and even shy person. It was all acting, and it was great acting.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of "I Am Divine" is what a major celebrity Divine had really become. After the success of "Hairspray," he was truly poised to cross over from the cult-film ghetto. The very morning he died, of a massive heart attack in 1988, he was getting ready to leave his hotel room for the first day of shooting on a new Fox sitcom called "Married with Children." I have no doubt Divine would have made his mark on television the same way he did in the movies: with a blast of joyful outrage.