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Tawdry, shocking and, eventually, Divine with mom

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'I always used to say to Glenn: 'Don't ever do anything to embarrass us.'"

That particular testimony comes from the mother of Harris Glenn Milstead, the artist who would eventually be known throughout the world as Divine.

Milstead ultimately did indulge in behaviour that would have mortified the average mom and dad raising their kids in the early 1960s. He donned drag. He used drugs. He shoplifted. He wrote bad cheques.

And he was not merely gay, he was spectacularly gay.

He was exiled from his home, but fortunately for Milstead, he had gravitated to a like-minded rebel in his Baltimore neighbourhood. His friend's name was John Waters.

Their pairing would shake up the realm of film in the '70s and '80s. Divine and Waters would become the Lennon and McCartney of depraved underground cinema. Their collaborations ranged from the short film outrages Eat Your Makeup and The Diane Linkletter Story to feature-length travesties Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Their work together culminated in Waters' mainstream crossover hit Hairspray, in which Divine took the supporting role of drudge mom Edna Turnblad.

Given a wealth of juicy material, it would be hard to go wrong and director Jeffrey Schwarz does not. His archival footage is well chosen, and, as much as possible, tasteful. For example, he documents the moments before Divine ate dog poo on camera at the climax of Pink Flamingos, but not the actual event. He skirts the more tawdry moments of Female Trouble to show Divine's Dawn Davenport in the best moment of the film, in full under-the-Christmas-tree tantrum. ("I told you I wanted cha cha heels!").

Schwarz, whose past subjects have included gay porn star Jack Wrangler and joyful exploitation producer William Castle, understands the arc of gay culture in those tumultuous decades and is not blind to the fact Divine's career may have hit its best-before date before he died in 1988. (It is fascinating to consider what it would have been like if he had fulfilled his role in the then-fledgling TV sitcom Married With Children.)

Best of all, he has assembled a gallery of seasoned raconteurs, especially Waters of course, but also other members of Waters' "Dreamlanders" repertory company such as Mink Stole, as well as colourful witnesses to Divine's life, including Tab Hunter (Divine's co-star in Polyester and Lust in the Dust) and Warhol star Holly Woodlawn, who remains hilariously jealous of Divine's success with accommodating men.

Providing a moving conclusion to the tale is Divine's aforementioned mom, who moved to end the estrangement (after going to a theatre to see Female Trouble) and accompanying her son to the première of Hairspray. In that, Schwarz achieves something Waters never could: An authentic tearjerker moment.

I Am Divine opens Feb. 8.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 D6

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