I Am Divine is a captivating documentary about the life and career of Harris Glen Milstead, better known by his stage name/drag persona Divine. Divine had a long and expansive career through many forms of media (film, stage, music, and television) and was by no means an overnight success. His most critically acclaimed performance, as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, was, sadly, his last. He passed away from a heart attack right when he finally seemed poised for the mainstream success he dreamed of his whole life. I Am Divine tells the story of the notorious performer through archival footage and interviews with Divine's peers. John Waters appears, naturally, as do Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, and Mary Vivian Pearce. Beyond the typical Waters' players, Divine's influence and reputation are truly shown. Journalist Michael Musto, actor Tab Hunter, and Emmy-winning casting director Pat Moran (among many other surprising participants) sing Divine's praises for the entire run time.
The documentary does take on a typical biography format. Milstead's death is hinted at through the opening discussion of Hairspray. The rest of the film goes in chronological order, starting with childhood (including a fantastic interview with Divine's high school girlfriend) and covering his transformation into the character we now recognize as Divine.
Let's be clear. The reason to watch this documentary is a fascination with Divine. You will learn new things about his career, his life, and his reputation. What seems like a novelty career on paper is, in reality, one of the most grueling battles for success and acceptance to ever happen in American entertainment. There's a reason every interview subject brings up Milstead's status as a 300 pound man playing the most beautiful and dangerous woman in the world: it's simultaneously the defining characteristic and greatest obstacle in the character of Divine.
Break it down realistically. How many overweight actresses have successful careers at any given time in Hollywood? Now how many of those women are championed for bad behavior, such as cursing at audiences and simulating sex with anything that moves? Now how many of those women are actually drag performers demanding to be treated as men when not being paid to dress as a woman for a role? I can't think of another in history beyond Divine.
I Am Divine covers so many subjects because of the breadth of Divine's career. You learn a whole lot about John Waters' filmmaking philosophy, the underground movie scene of the 1960s and 70s, the drug culture of the 60s and 70s, club life in the 70s and 80s, avant garde and off-Broadway theater troupes, disco music, the Hollywood casting process, and the immense respect every creative person shows to a peer who creates a reputation for professionalism, and the importance of caring for others in and out of the entertainment industry.
That last one is all too often ignored in the media. Creative people want to work with good people, not waste their energy on monsters. Divine's success comes down to a combination of talent, fearlessness, and being a good person. It's a lesson more people need to learn: work hard, be nice, and keep trying.
I Am Divine is currently streaming on Netflix.