MOVIE REVIEW

‘I Am Divine’: The man beneath the ‘Hairspray’ | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-12-01T03:33:57Z

By STEPHEN HOLDEN

The New York Times

Before Boy George, before RuPaul, there was Divine, the zaftig drag diva and provocateur of early John Waters films who, once glimpsed, was hard to forget.

Facetiously dubbed “the filthiest person alive” for a notorious scene in the 1972 film “Pink Flamingos,” in which he ate dog feces, Divine expanded the concept of the drag queen from brash female impersonator into something much larger, more subversive and less gender specific.

One of the many talking heads in “I Am Divine,” Jeffrey Schwarz’s loving homage, describes Divine — whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead — as a “cinematic terrorist.”

Waters grew up on the same Baltimore street as Milstead, whom he met when he was 17, and he credits Divine with bringing drag “to the level of anarchy.”

As you watch excerpts from performances on the stage, in nightclubs and in Waters’ movies, Divine comes across as a voracious, foul-mouthed, super-plus-sized Halloween cartoon: With a hairline shaved halfway back on his head to accommodate slanting Mephistophelean eyebrows, he is simultaneously funny and scary.

Milstead’s transformation from pariah to celebrity is the story of a quintessential outsider — a chubby, effeminate boy relentlessly bullied in high school — who struck back and realized his unlikely dream of being a movie star. An early photograph shows a cherubic mama’s boy with a glint in his eye, dressed in his Sunday best.

His mother, Frances Milstead, recalls in the film being told by a pediatrician that her son was more feminine than masculine. She took that assessment in stride. But when he confessed his homosexuality, she says, he was told to “forget you have a mother and father.” Years later, they happily reconciled. She died in 2009.

“I Am Divine” doesn’t dwell on Milstead’s growing pains. It is an aggressively upbeat show-business success story that focuses on his self-reinvention as the most flamboyantly charismatic member of the band of outsiders in Dreamland Productions, Waters’ underground film company. The documentary includes excerpts from Waters’ early films, including “Eat Your Makeup,” in which Divine played Jacqueline Kennedy in a grotesquely amusing re-creation of the Kennedy assassination, and “Multiple Maniacs,” in which he is raped by a lobster.

When Divine flew to San Francisco to perform with the drag troupe the Cockettes, he was greeted like a visiting dignitary. A defining role was the demented sociopath Dawn Davenport in the mid-’70s movie “Female Trouble,” which one interviewee describes as Waters’ “Gone With the Wind.”

Seeking to expand his career beyond Waters’ circle, Divine undertook a New York theater career playing a prison matron in Tom Eyen’s play “Women Behind Bars” and performed in discos. Movie comedies like “Polyester” and the spaghetti Western parody “Lust in the Dust” with Tab Hunter followed.

Mainstream recognition of sorts came with his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”

Divine was on the verge of a possible television career in 1988, when he died of a heart attack the night before he was to film an episode of “Married … With Children.” He was 42. Because the future looked so promising, his manager, Bernard Jay, said Divine “died of happiness.”

(At the Tivoli.)

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