I Am Divine!, the latest inspired queer documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, Vito) opens with footage from the premiere of the film Hairspray in Baltimore. In it, Divine is intereviewed, gushing about how happy the night was making him. "I'm loving every minute of it!" he says, unaware he would be dead within days.
It's a bittersweet start to an otherwise ebullient documentation of a singular film icon, a punk drag artist with humor who was simultaneously the most beautiful "woman" in the world and the filthiest person alive. And underneath it all, "she" was also a mousy boy from Baltimore who unironically worshiped Elizabeth Taylor and longed for stardom.
Schwarz has crackling, insightful interviews peppered with unforgettable one-liners from John Waters, surviving Cockettes, childhood friends, Tab Hunter and the late mother of Divine, all beautifully filmed and framed with amazing vintage footage and photos. The animated graphics used are colorful and hip, expertly underscoring the subject's angry creativity.
The most interesting aspect of this film to me is how deeply Divine's career is pored over, including rare stage shows and behind-the-scenes stories from all of the Waters movies, reminding us that Divine was not a guilty pleasure but a bona fide silver-screen goddess. Divine did—and even ate—some ridiculous shit, but he did it with the conviction of a professional. He ate shit the way Greta Garbo stared over the bow of her ship in Queen Christina.
"We all have our other sides that we don't show to other people."—Divine
But as the interviews reveal, Divine's other side was vulnerable. He never stopped being the shy boy looking for love, not even after he perfected the part of the outrageous drag queen willing to do anything for attention. In this way, Divine's story is the story of countless gay men who grow up closeted and spend their adult lives playing the part of the men they always dreamed of being. Except in Divine's case, he was also playing the part of the woman he always dreamed of being.
I Am Divine! is a pure pleasure, a fitting tribute to a gay icon.
I Am Divine! opens on October 25 in NYC, and in other U.S. cities this fall.