I first saw Divine on stage in 1977 at the Whitehall Theatre in the Debbie Raymond and Fiona Richmond’s presentation of Tom Eyan’s Woman Behind Bars. This was a camp spoof of the exploitation movies made in the 1950’s and was set in the Woman’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. Originally premiered in New York in 1975 Devine joined the cast a year later as the most outrageous character in the production, the scheming prison matron Pauline. In the programme, which miraculously I still have, there is a brief pen portrait, which really summarises Divine’s career to that time and gives you an idea of what to expect from the wonderful documentary, produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, I Am Devine (2013) that focuses on the American actor, singer and drag queen.
World famous for creating original characters Divine made her mark in the popular films of John Waters. Best known for playing Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos (1972) Divine’s film credits to date include Roman Candles (1966), Eat Your Make Up (1968), The Diana Linkletter Story (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Mondo Trasho (1969).
Pink Flamingos is still, after several years, one of the hottest film attractions and has been honoured all over the World as a film classic and was shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art as part of the The Great American Comedy Series. A native of Baltimore Divine has chosen New York as home base and it is from there that Divine has travelled the US continent to create the many characters that have brought fame. On stage in San Francisco appearance in Saves the World and Vice Palace.
In New York City, under the aegis of Tom O’Horgan for the La MaMa Repertory Company, in Spring Rites. An interlude in Divine’s stage career for a seventh, and favourite film Female Trouble (1974), made in Baltimore. Back to the stage again in Washington D.C. under the watchful eye of director Ron Link in Woman Behind Bars followed 500 performances of the same role in New York City.
Divine lists hobbies and special interests as Furs, Mink, Fisher, Martin and Sable. Jewels, any and all sizes – gemstones preferred. Flowers – orchids, all varieties by the dozen and finally nothing less than a ten pound note. (Well it was 1977!)
Schwarz’s documentary gives you both a glimpse of Harris Glenn Milstead life before becoming Divine as well as his work thereafter. Bullied every day at school, it was this shy retiring boys work with his friend, filmmaker John Waters that brought him to the attention of the world at large as one of the most shockingly extreme drag queens ever to wear a frock and wig.
Film star, stage actor and singer Divine did it all. Spoken of kindly by all those that knew him especially by Waters and the other Dreamlanders whose anecdotes are hilarious. But it’s the interviews with his now deceased mother Frances Milstead that is the most poignant. Interesting, outrageous, sad and funny really sums up this larger than life character. Who, as he got older, wanted nothing more than to be regarded as a serious actor.
This is a very unique documentary about a very special human being who represented all of life’s beautiful rarities that did not fit, or do not want to fit into mainstream (boring) society. A lovely man that stood up to the establishment, sending an erotic ripple through all you ‘non believers’!