A new "larger than life" documentary from Jeffrey Schwarz centers on a very overweight, drug-addled Harris Glenn Milstead who turned bullying and rejection into a dynamic drag existence and even potential as a character actor before an untimely death in 1988.
In I Am Divine something reverential and touching emerges from many talking heads including collaborators of the gender-bending Baltimore-lad who flourished (into the eponymous name) under the tutelage of subversive auteur John Waters through the transgressive Multiple Maniacs and the more well known underground release Pink Flamingos. During this early phase through the guidance of Waters the aspiring hairdresser played Jackie Kennedy in a 1965 reinterpretation of the JFK assassination.
This portrait from Schwarz reveals Milstead's straightforward vivaciousness and insinuates a weird kind of posthumous reprisal beyond the 'TMI' and jolts for viewers from some of his performances for Waters (one of which notoriously included a poodle).
As Waters would gravitate towards the mainstream, the year Milstead's life caught up with him surprising returns came as an ebullient Hairspray with Divine in a memorable cross-dressing role opposite Ricki Lake and Sonny Bono. The success lead to a Broadway musical transformation and later back on the silver screen as a musical starring John Travolta opposite Nikki Blonsky and Christopher Walken.
It's hard to believe that the popular duo could have exceeded this kind of cinematic ebullience and the filmmaking takes this into account. In a relatively short time the spirit and wit of Divine resonated even outside of a physical presence made up to full effect. That went beyond the makeup with committed efforts in Polyester opposite his teen idol Tab Hunter and as a glib gangster in the Seattle-set Trouble In Mind opposite Kris Kristofferson. At least in this conventional, yet involving cinema verity a vivid presence continues to live on.
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