Cross-dressing diva, countercultural icon and screeching force of nature, Divine’s fame (and indeed infamy) revolves around that notorious scene in Pink Flamingos when he scoops up newly deposited dog faeces and pops them into his mouth. A gag in every sense of the word, the stomach-churning stunt followed Harris Glenn Milstead to his grave and still remains the first thing that comes to mind whenever his flamboyant alter ego is mentioned.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s loving documentary doesn’t shy away from what its subject is best known for. But at least it makes an effort to place it in context, establishing the young Milstead as an unapologetically effeminate misfit who exacted retribution on the bullies that persecuted him as a child by attacking everything they held dear in later life. He found a kindred spirit in director John Waters, a fellow Baltimore native with his own bone to pick over mainstream propriety.
Together they took aim and fired, hitting holy cows (Jackie Kennedy in Eat Your Makeup), the holy church (Divine’s rosary masturbation in Multiple Maniacs) and, finally, the wholly outrageous (Flamingos’ shit repast, a scene that actually entailed following a stray mutt around for three hours in the hope it would evacuate on camera).
Yet the way I Am Divine tells it, Divine didn’t just want to shock. He also wanted to be taken seriously, something that seemed within his grasp when, after a praised turn in Waters’ Hairspray, he won a guest spot on Married… With Children. Fate had other plans, ending the film on a poignant note of unrealised promise. Yet on the whole the tone is celebratory, a cultish array of interviewees – Ricki Lake, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole – queuing up to salute his ebullience, loyalty and zest for life.
If you’d rather not watch a fat man in drag being raped by a lobster, I Am Divine may not be your bag. If you have an appetite for the outré, though, it’s well nigh unmissable.
High camp and low trash make an entertaining combo in an overdue homage to a fearless trailblazer. Not for the faint-hearted, the judgemental or the recently fed.