I Am Divine

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

I Am Divine
"Does an impressive job of connecting with the man behind the myth."

Variously described as a monster, an attention whore, a punk pioneer and the most beautiful woman in the world, Divine had a presence in film and on stage that was truly larger than life. The famous muse of John Waters, the self-proclaimed queen of filth and a legendary disco performer, he was also a sensitive, well-mannered man who longed to be taken seriously as an actor. This documentary attempts to get under his skin. Following a simple format, charting the course of his life with the aid of a impressive set of interviewees, it does an impressive job of connecting with the man behind the myth, skirting the the glamorous clichés of celebrity to deliver something much more human and humane.

Despite the presence of John Waters, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter and others, the interviewee who really stands out is Frances Milstead - Divine's mum. She didn't long survive the the making of the film and it's dedicated to her memory. From her we hear the sort of tales of childhood that rarely emerge in such contexts - of how well mannered her little boy was, how much everybody loved him and how much he loved cake. Her recollection of a visit to the doctor, who told her Glen was more feminine than masculine, is an acute reminder of the times in which he grew up, and the assurances she gave him that she would love him no matter what - extraordinarily brave in that time - are more poignant because they would go on to spend much of his adult life not speaking to each other. Her only request had been that he not do anything to embarrass the family. When he admitted he used drugs, wore dresses and had starred in a film as a murderous psychopath raped by a giant lobster, it was a bit much for her suburban sensibilities.

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Waters is, of course, an important contributor, one half of the partnership that made Divine a star, but the film also looks at the other partnerships important in his life - with costume designer Van Smith and early drag inspiration David Lochary, fr instance - showing his ability to connect with the right people and the importance of all those talents in contributing to what he would become. Some pairings were less successful - "I think he hated me," says Ricki Lake, remembering the moment when she was cast in Hairspray and he was relegated to the supporting role of mother - but even then they went on to become friends. What will astonish viewers who have only a passing familiarity with its subject is how warm hearted this film is, without ever being obsequious. Divine may have specialised in playing outré, sometimes vicious characters, but the only negative thing anybody has to say about him as a person is that he was very generous with other people's money.

This dismantling of the celebrated persona extends to Divine's gender identity and his struggle with others' assumptions that he wanted to be a woman, as over time he became more comfortable with himself as a feminine man and as an actor for whom gender was not a barrier to taking on a role. To its credit, the film avoids getting psychoanalytical here but relies on the testimony of friends, and in no way minimises Divine's importance as an icon for trans people, gay people, fat people and women tired of being judged on the basis of body type. The historical context for this is also approached with a light touch, but it's hard not to feel gleeful delight at the sight of our heroine striding down the street in a tiny skin-tight dress past genuinely shocked onlookers, like the herald of a new age. There's a lot of joy in this film, mingled with the interviewees' lingering sadness at his death, and there's a great deal of humour. Like the best drag acts, it will move you to laughter and tears and leave you wondering if you have, through this artifice, glimpsed something unusually real.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2014
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A documentary about the film star, pop star and all round legend.
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