Review: Getting to know ‘Divine’

A scene from "I Am Divine."

On the evidence of the documentary “I Am Divine,” to know the drag star Divine was to love him. Affectionate reminiscences abound in Jeffrey Schwarz’s fittingly feisty, quick-moving portrait of Harris Glenn Milstead, who burst not-so-straight outta Baltimore as the trash-talking muse to a fledgling filmmaker named John Waters.

Outsize and outré, Divine flaunted his considerable girth in skinny-girl getups and took drag performance to places it had never been. He was a gentle, big-spirited misfit who found liberation and underground fame playing a spoofy, scary, punk-before-punk diva — a character who, for many years and to his increasing dismay, was best known for the notorious final sequence of Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.”

Without digging especially deep, the movie, nonetheless, creates a vivid sense of the actor’s work — in film, onstage and under the disco ball — and his life, from shy kid to soft-spoken actor eager to stake his claim in the mainstream spotlight. He died only weeks after receiving raves for 1988’s “Hairspray” and hours before he was to shoot a non-drag guest stint on the hit series “Married … With Children.”

Schwarz’s well-chosen footage of Divine out of character makes you wish he had used more. But a strong sense of the star’s personality emerges from the kaleidoscopic mix of talking heads, among them his mother and high school girlfriend (he did her hair and makeup for prom). Schwarz understands Divine, a heroine to outsiders, and Glenn, who took the persona as far as he could and was ready for new roles. His film’s celebratory pizazz suits them both.



‘I Am Divine’

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes


Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles