Thursday, 6 February 2014

I AM DIVINE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Lovely biographical portrait of actor and John Waters' muse

I Am DIVINE! (2013) ****
Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz
Starring: Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), John Waters, Rikki Lake, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Most people associate Divine, the 300-pound drag performer with the films of John Waters and in particular, the notorious scene at the end of Pink Flamingos wherein a cute little doggie takes a fresh poop on the sidewalk and the porcine hero proves to the world that his character is indeed the filthiest person alive by scooping up the turd and eating it with lip-smacking relish. Needless to say, there was far more to Divine, or rather, Harris Glenn Milstead than grossing out the world and this lovely feature length biographical documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito) delivers a portrait of a committed actor and generous human being. Using new interviews, archival footage and a myriad of film clips, Schwarz takes us from Divine's childhood, through to adolescence and then throughout his entire career. To learn he was bullied as a child is no surprise and though he appears to have had a loving girlfriend in his late teens, he was a fun, funny and complex gay man with a definite penchant for performance. His friendship and association with John Waters was formed very early on and clearly the men inspired each other. Waters did indeed create the Divine persona, but Divine took it several steps further and became one of the most beloved figures in underground cinema.

However, what I, and probably many viewers don't know is just how popular and in demand Divine was on the New York stages of off-off-off-VERY-off Broadway. He acted in numerous shows, always in drag and also fashioned a brilliant career as a standup performer. Divine's success in New York led to worldwide tours and he was, in fact, the toast of show business - receiving backstage visits from the likes of Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson - you name it - a who's who of entertainment royalty.

Of course, every year or so was a new John Waters film and as Waters himself sought to grow as a filmmaker, so did Divine as an actor. Waters cannily crafted ever-shifting roles for Divine and by the time Polyester came around, Waters had Divine playing the frustrated suburban housewife relatively straight - a model 50s style woman who is seduced by none other than former teen heartthrob Tab Hunter. Divine expressed some disappointment at being relegated to a supporting role in Hairspray, but his performance here was so pitch perfect and the film itself a mainstream success that Divine (and Waters) finally reached the widest possible audience of either of their careers.

Schwarz spends a fair bit of time on Divine's starring role in Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust where he and Lainie Kazan vied for the hearts of stalwart cowboy heroes and we begin to learn even more interesting things about Divine. Though gay, he never considered himself a full-on drag queen and certainly did not relate at all in his private life to adhering to the lifestyle of either a transvestite or transgendered individual. Divine was ALL-MAN and that's how he was happy to keep it.

In fact, his desire to act in "straight" roles AS a man, became increasingly intense and after years of toil in the underground, Alan Rudolph eventually cast him opposite Kris Kristofferson in Trouble in Mind.

Schwarz doesn't neglect Divine's private life, either. We learn of his sad estrangement from his parents, his drug taking (though mostly marijuana) and his endless fight with obesity - so much so that, in spite of endless attempts at dieting, he kept falling off the wagon and gaining the weight back exponentially.

And finally, we're taken to Divine's key point - where all his dreams of being taken seriously as an actor came to fruition and he was cast in a straight comic role on television's hit series "Married With Children".

This is clearly a warm portrait and rightly so. We get a great sense of Divine as both a great artist and as a generous, loving human being. In the end, his obesity and severe obstructive sleep apnea contributed to a massive heart attack that cut his life far too short and while there is much to admire in this documentary in terms of sheer entertainment value and good humour, it is also a tremendously moving experience.

By the end, I defy anyone seeing this terrific picture to have anything resembling a dry eye.

"I Am Divine" is in limited theatrical release across North America and in Canada can next be seen at the Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque Sat Feb 8, 2014 at 9:00 PM, Thu Feb 13, 2014 at 9:00 PM, Fri Feb 14, 2014 at 9:00 PM, Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 9:00 PM and Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 9:00 PM. For further information, please visit the WFG website HERE.