by Steve Desroches
Divine was the most unlikely of superstars. An outcast from an early age Divine encapsulated the revolutionary aura of the 1960s and 70s by pulling off the most revolutionary act of staying true to himself, being a loyal friend, having a ferocious sense of beauty, and a dedication to an artistic creation–himself. But the most rebellious act of all is that in the process of becoming a legend, Divine may have assumed a new name and flip-flopped genders, but he never abandoned his roots, he never denied where he came from, and he never rewrote his biography. In this world, that is a major accomplishment.
The fascinating and inspiring life of Divine is the subject of a new documentary I Am Divine, which will be the Friday Night Spotlight at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival. Twenty-five years after Divine’s death, I Am Divine is a compelling and heartfelt reminder of the importance of resisting forced assimilation and of the idea that liberation is only truly achieved when we learn to stand up for ourselves–a message as true today as it was in the days when Divine was still Harris Glenn Milstead, an overweight, feminine teenager in Baltimore.
“As a teenager Divine was picked on, teased, and abused mercilessly,” says Jeffrey Schwarz, director and producer of I Am Divine, via e-mail. “When he met John Waters and the other Dreamland folks he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all that trauma and channel it into the Divine character, and throw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces.”
In these days of Human Rights Campaign black-tie dinners, the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian relationships in television shows like Modern Family, and the fact that opposition to gay rights is fast becoming a political liability, it’s hard to remember, but important not to forget that the foundation of that progress is built upon those pioneers who fought from outside not just the mainstream culture, but who may now very well find themselves pushed out by a new hybrid heterosexual/homosexual establishment based on wealth, power, and corporate standards. In that regard, Divine is the Rosa Parks of freaks and outcasts who didn’t just refuse to give up her seat on the bus, but grabbed a hold of the wheel.
“John [Waters] used to say he made movies for gay people who didn’t get along with other gay people,” says Schwarz. “They appealed to other outsiders and freaks and reveled in shocking people who were humor impaired. Divine did play all the gay clubs when he did his disco act, but his appeal wasn’t limited to a gay audience. He also appealed to the punk rock kids, would play straight clubs and hold his own. I’ve only heard Divine refer to himself as gay once – on a radio interview in the early 70s that we use in the film. He didn’t need to be officially ‘out’ because really who would ever think that Divine was straight? And the gay community has always had a problem with drag. On one hand drag performers are worshiped and adored by gay men, on the other hand they’re not looked upon as the ‘politically correct’ image for straight society to accept us. Divine wasn’t outwardly political and didn’t get involved in any gay causes, but just by being who he was I’m sure empowered people to accept themselves.”
While Divine, and indeed Waters and the Dreamlanders, are primarily associated with Baltimore, Provincetown has a long history with these film and cultural pioneers. While I Am Divine follows Divine from his childhood and early cult stardom in Maryland to falling into the outstretched arms of the Cockettes in San Francisco to becoming the darling of the legendary Studio 54 in New York to being just on the cusp of Hollywood fame at the time of his tragic death, the film makes no mention of his time in Provincetown. Clearly, in the big picture of Divine’s life, Provincetown may have not been so pivotal as to warrant much note when looking at the his life, but an audience in town may be anticipating it considering what a big impression Divine made on Provincetown. From rooming with Holly Woodlawn to starring in a production of Neon Woman at the Madeira Room to driving through the window of Land’s End Marine Supply on Commercial Street while looking at his name on a marquee, Divine is certainly an adopted son of Provincetown, sharing custody with Baltimore, in the same way the town lays claim to Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and the myriad of other artistic masters who’ve landed at the Cape tip.
It is clear that Divine left behind a creative legacy, but I Am Divine is infused with a moving tenderness, a real expression of love and affection of those who knew him intimately as friends, co-workers, and in one case, a high school girlfriend. Divine was loved and gave love.
“When we screened recently in Baltimore all the Dreamland royalty was there and it was very emotional,” says Schwarz. “For the film, it was important to go beyond the layers of eyeliner and wigs and hairspray to find the very real man inside. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person. I wanted people to get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He was a sweet, soft spoken guy with so much love in his heart.”
I Am Divine is screening on Friday, June 21 at Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., at 9:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, June 23, at the Art House, 214 Commercial St. at 2:30 p.m. Friday night’s screening will be followed by Female Trouble (1974), starring Divine, at approximately 11:30 p.m.. Tickets are $13 for each film and available at the Provincetown International Film Festival box office at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. For more information visit