Thursday, July 24, 2014

Film Review: I am Divine (2014)

I am Divine poster

Ask people to think of a ‘70s movie star and they might say Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway or Diane Keaton.  Ask them for an ‘80s pop icon and they might say Madonna, or Whitney Houston, or George Michael.  But to a large group of people the answer is the same – Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine.

For those who do not know, Divine was originally a recurring character played by Glenn that appeared in John Water’s early art-house movies, the most iconic being Pink Flamingos which gained notoriety due to its mission of being the filthiest movie ever made.  (If that claim intrigues you then I suggest you hunt it down, it’s been discussed too much to explain why it is brilliant again here…)

Divine then turned her hand to making electronic disco records, a remarkably successful change of career that saw her touring the world and hanging out in such legendary nightclubs as the legendary Studio 54 in New York, and even Manchester’s The Hacienda.  She even performed on Top Of The Pops in the UK to a barrage of complaints from terrified conservatives, and this was 30 years before Conchita Wurst...

[side note: listen to how similar this is to Dead or Alive’s
 much more famous hit from two years later]

This is one of the best biopics I have seen in a long while. Perfectly pacing the narrative from Glenn’s youth and emergence as a gay teenager at a time when this was still illegal (!), smoking marijuana and watching Ingmar Bergman films on LSD, through to his death from a massive heart attack in the late 1980s.  Using interviews with his friends, fans and family layered with hundreds of glamorous still pictures of the evolution of his career, both as Divine and as a more ‘serious’ actor, the film has a real fondness for its unconventional hero – a kindness instead of the sycophantism or martyrdom that can arise in some documentaries.

The focus of the film is obviously Divine, but best supporting has to go to John Waters (a personal hero).  When considering making Pink Flamingos he posed himself the question “What can we do that isn’t illegal yet?” and then claimed that on exhibition every time someone is sick its ‘like a standing ovation’.  Waters brought to audiences attention their unconscious desire to watch obscene taboos being broken, and this documentary makes the link between this and later hugely popular shows such as Jackass and Fear Factor – just think of I’m a Celebrity in the UK and the joy people get from watching famous people having to eat disgusting foods.  Together their legacy is huge.

But the real star was always Divine, she was an incredible character that “exaggerated what everyone hated and made it a style” and was an obvious champion of outsiders.  Glenn was a brilliant actor/personality underneath it all and was just as comfortable in a suit on Letterman or Larry King as in a dress on stage at a midnight drag show.  This dual identity results in 90 minutes of confused gender pronouns throughout the film, even coming from his closest friends that can’t seem to disassociate the persona from the person.


As a snapshot of sexuality, fame and the cultural underground, there are few better stories than the rise of Divine.

No comments:

Post a Comment