I can't think of a better way to recommend Jeffrey Schwarz's 2013 documentary I Am Divine, out on DVD this week, than by sharing the clip above. It draws a picture of what it was like for Harris Glenn Milstead, who'd go on to become the John Waters muse and drag icon known as Divine, to be gay in the '60s. It's affectionate, it's snappily paced, it's brimming with Baltimore-bred weirdos (including Diana Evans, whom Divine dated for about six years starting in high school, and seems like the least weird out of all the talking heads). All it's missing is commentary from Divine himself, which is something the movie has no shortage of, given the big archive of press appearances Divine left behind when he died in 1988.
My favorite quote in the clip above comes from Waters: "It was not like today, where everybody was out and there was a gay scene. There was, but it was illegal to be gay. It was kinda more fun then." I love Waters' irreverent commentary on gay culture, which refuses to conform to increasingly sensitive sensibilities. (Also see this quote regarding John Travolta in Waters' 2010 book Role Models: "'Here's how I feel: even if Scientologists say that they can make you straight if you're gay, so what? If someone's that miserable being gay, I don't want 'em. They'll just make bad boyfriends. Let Scientology have them!'')
That kind of irreverence was key to Divine's persona, which was a sort of satire on the Baltimore drag scene that Divine quickly grew tired of after seeing how seriously it was being taken by his fellow adopters. Waters says he encouraged Divine's unconventional and consciously unflattering aesthetic decisions "because he was making fun of drag." It would be decades before drag could even approach being taken seriously as an art form, and yet Divine and Waters were already tearing it down and stomping on it.
"He could never pass as normal," says Waters of Divine, and so Divine turned what many people would consider a weakness, even today (for gays, perhaps more than ever), into an asset. Divine's persona, on screen and onstage, could be howlingly aggressive. He had a lot of pain in his past — he was brutally bullied in school, his parents rejected him for being gay. Divine's art, giving a full-bodied performance no matter the medium (stage, screen, music), was in part his way of making productive use of his pent-up rage. That's a conventional story for a lot of people who've been shit on for being who they are, but Divine's way of coping was all his own. There was never anything like him and there hasn't been since.
There, too, was something conventional in the attention-baiting that Waters and Divine engaged in. The motivation behind their antics, as reflected on in I Am Divine, feels modern and base, and yet someone who's willing to eat dog shit before our very eyes possesses an audacity that today's young narcissists couldn't even dream of. Apparently, to coerce Divine into the shit-eating that would go on to define not just the movie in whose last scene it appears (Pink Flamingos), but also Divine's career in general, Waters leveled with him: "Listen, do you want to be famous?" Divine did, and so he ate the shit.
Condensing a varied life and career into 90 minutes is a feat unto itself, and yet I Am Divine is vivid and specific through the anecdotes shared by Divine's friends and peers. Taking part in a Cockettes show, Divine scandalized the hippies of San Francisco by telling an audience full of them, "I eat white sugar." As Sue Lowe, who appears in the clip above, helpfully points out regarding their clique: "We were freaks, we weren't hippies. Freaks drank, ate meat and did…mmm, y'know…drugs." Divine was a wake-and-bake pot-smoker, someone who was high morning to night, as was a pre-sober RuPaul, who first smoked weed at 11. That's a coincidence, but a telling one, given both drag performers' difficult pasts and the flat-out absurdity they would frequently tap into through their art (Ru's faces in the "Supermodel (You Better Work)" video alone are all the commentary you need on how weed fueled his expression).
I Am Divine was released last year to almost unanimously positive reviews, with the rare voice of dissent referring to it as "overly reverential." It's true that this movie is a love letter that only makes Divine seem like someone that everyone wanted to be around. Some people really are just that appealing, though, and that an overweight drag queen could attain such a status in the '70s and '80s is nothing short of a triumph worth remembering.