A new documentary relates the John Waters star’s story with affection and humor.
Even a quick glance at Divine is enough to make most Oscar-winning stars look like frightened bunnies by comparison.
A vivaciously hammy, 300-pound drag queen with a mean streak and a face full of smeared makeup, Divine — born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, 1945 — made his screen debut in 1968, playing a blood-soaked Jackie Kennedy squirming in the back seat of the presidential limo. From there, he continued to desecrate middle American propriety, and delight rebel outsiders of all stripes, during two of the most dispiriting decades the counterculture had seen.
Were there any justice in the months after Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Divine would have taken the Academy Award for his performance in John Waters’ fearlessly scuzzy “Pink Flamingos,” in which he plays a flamboyant trailer-park criminal whose title as the “filthiest person alive” is forever secured when, at what you’d call the film’s tail end, he devours a fresh lump of doggy doo-doo.
Alas, the late star will have to make do with immortal queer-icon status and “I Am Divine,” a new documentary that tells his amazing story with boundless affection and humor tasteless and otherwise. A brisk mix of classic film clips, rarely seen performance footage and contemporary talking-head testimonies from Waters and other Divine intimates, including his mom, the doc is newly available for rent or purchase via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Vudu.
Among the film’s achievements is its definitive use of the male pronoun for the feminine Divine, who saw himself first as an actor and never identified as transgender. Which isn’t to say Divine lacked politics of a sort. For film critic Dennis Dermody, who got his start as a theater usher cleaning the vomit of “Pink Flamingos” patrons, Divine is the anarchic antithesis of America’s sweetheart.
Anger, Waters says in the film, was a key component of the Divine persona, formed in the hard-fought emergence of bullied, introverted, movie-loving Glenn Milstead from homophobic early ’60s Baltimore. But the doc, like Divine, has a tender underbelly, especially in its treatment of the actor’s reconciliation with his long-estranged mother, Frances, who died proud of her boy.
Also notable on VOD
Further proving the eternal resistance of “Pink Flamingos” to the mainstream’s warm embrace is the fact that the movie — which Variety credited with having the “most nauseating capper in film history” — can’t be found anywhere on VOD. That’s a crowning achievement for the picture and a bummer for its fans, although I’m with those who say that the better Waters/Divine movie is “Female Trouble” (1974), which streams via Vudu, Google Play and YouTube movies (in standard definition, aptly or not).
Dermody considers “Female Trouble” to be “pre-punk” as well as “Waters’ ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ” Indeed, cross Scarlett O’Hara with the Germs’ Darby Crash and you have something akin to Divine’s Dawn Davenport, a shrieking narcissist who’d kill to be famous — and does. Maybe the movie’s tail end has nothing on that of “Pink Flamingos,” but, for Dawn, her final performance — given in the electric chair, no less — feels just like Oscar gold.