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Film Review: I am Divine

John Waters’ muse gets the loving look back he deserves

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I am Divine

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Opens Oct. 11

It could not be more fitting that I Am Divine, the thoroughly absorbing documentary about the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, plays The Senator Theatre on Oct. 11, its first full day of operation after a year and a half of renovation.

For one thing, I Am Divine opens with an exterior shot of The Senator on one of its most memorable nights, Feb. 19, 1988, when John Waters’ Hairspray debuted there. (Hairspray plays The Senator on its reopening night, Oct. 10.) TV crews, the mayor, the cast, including Ricki Lake, and Baltimore-born stars like Ric Ocasek all turned up along with hordes of fans for the spectacle. We see Waters walk down the red carpet with Divine, both dressed in tuxedos. A TV reporter asks Divine, “In one sentence, can you sum up this movie experience?”

This is divine,” he says, grinning. “It’s great. It’s the greatest night for me in a long time. I’m loving every minute of it.”

We could say the same for I Am Divine. The film suits The Senator perfectly not only because of that opening scene, but because it is so rich in Baltimore history and culture. A dominant thread of Charm City’s arts world over the decades has been its embrace of outsiders, from Waters and Frank Zappa to AVAM and Wham City, and nobody represents that more than Divine, who is portrayed here, warts and all, lovingly, like the member of the Baltimore family that he is.

Harris Glenn Milstead grew up in middleclass neighborhoods in Towson and Lutherville. Everyone, including his pediatrician and his mother, seemed to know he was gay (except, somehow, for his high school girlfriend, even after he picked out her dress for the prom), and he was bullied mercilessly. Luckily, in Lutherville, he lived down the street from John Waters.

Waters and Divine were a match made in filmmaking heaven. In Waters’ films, Divine found outlets for his strong flamboyant streak, for his anger, and, potentially, for his desperate desire to be a star. In Divine, Waters found a muse who would bring to life his most bizarre and repulsive notions, like the infamous scene at the end of Pink Flamingos in which Divine scoops up a pile of fresh dog poop and eats it. Perhaps the most laugh-out-loud moment of I Am Divine is when, during a clip of Divine getting raped by a lobster in Mondo Trasho, Milstead’s mother, in a voiceover, says, “I used to always say to Glenn, don’t ever do anything to embarrass us.”

In fact, once Divine came out to his parents, not only confirming that he was gay but also that he had been making films and doing drugs, they kicked him out. Divine would remain estranged from his parents for many years until Mrs. Milstead recognized her son’s eyes under Divine’s makeup on the cover of a magazine and reached out to him. They reconciled and remained close until Divine’s death, in 1988, at the age of 42.

Younger Baltimoreans who only know Divine as Waters’ muse may be surprised to discover that, for several years in the ’70s and ’80s, he was a genuine celebrity, releasing music albums, touring the world, and hanging out in Studio 54 with the likes of Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson. Though he lived in San Francisco, L.A., and New York for periods, he always returned to Baltimore to make movies with Waters.

Divine ultimately grew tired of being typecast as the over-the-top drag queen and aimed for recognition as an actor. He played a man in the 1985 gangster movie Trouble in Mind. But it was his turn as the overbearing but loving mother Edna Turnblad in Hairspray that earned Divine his best reviews and recognition for his acting chops. It would also be his last film. Three weeks after the premiere, Divine was in L.A. to film a recurring male role on Married . . . with Children—a prospect he was ecstatic about—when he had a massive heart attack and died in his bed.

I Am Divine pulls no punches, detailing the hero’s ongoing troubles with his weight and his health, but viewers are mostly left with the impression of a deeply loving, loved, unique man who was given the rare opportunity to become everything he wanted to be. Only in Baltimore.

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