The bigger-than-life Divine didn’t simply recite the dialogue in mondo trasho classics like Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos – she spewed it like verbal acid, a raging torrent of invectives aimed both at no one and everyone. Call it primal therapy as performance art, with John Waters as your shrink. Growing up in a conservative, upper-middle-class family in the Baltimore ’burbs, Harris Glenn Milstead never fit in. Upon graduating high school, the overweight teenager lacked a sense of direction, teasing out beehives at local beauty salons and dressing like Elizabeth Taylor from Butterfield 8 (“Face it, Mama: I’m the slut of all time!”) at parties that his clueless parents bankrolled. But upon befriending the Dreamlanders (Waters, David Lochary, and Mink Stole, among others) in the mid-Sixties, Milstead found his calling. In short time, he had transformed himself into the 300-pound sex symbol christened Divine, the Godzilla of drag queens. She was outrageousness personified, an exaggeration of female fury screaming about cha cha heels and performing coprophilic acts in movies. A star was born.
The sincere but overly reverential I Am Divine chronicles Milstead’s tragically short life in typical documentary fashion, tracing his film, stage, and music career through a series of interview clips primarily featuring his contemporaries and (most sweetly) his mother from whom he was estranged for many years. (The film’s frequently inaudible recordings of Milstead are less successful in conveying his life story; perhaps the flatness of his normal speaking voice partially explains why he delivered his onscreen lines with such unmodulated ferocity.) In later films such as Hairspray and Trouble in Mind, the shocking Divine persona gave way to a character actor who gender-straddled the fence and aspired to perform both male and female roles interchangeably. There’s something vaguely unsatisfying, however, in the way the last quarter of I Am Divine celebrates this assimilation. It feels like a veiled apology for Babs Johnson and other exercises in bad taste. In my book, the filthiest person alive will always win the prize.