“Divine was my close friend and fearless muse. Who else could convincingly turn from teenage delinquent to mugger, prostitute, unwed mother, fashion model, nightclub entertainer, murderess, and jailbird? All in the same movie?” John Waters
The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival kicked off over the weekend with Jeffrey Schwartz’s high octane documentary I AM DIVINE about the legendary John Waters’ muse, the thrillingly perverse and enigmatic performer, Divine. The film charts the story of Divine’s rise to cult status and fame through the excesses of John Waters’ midnight movies, her brief musical career and the drag performances in the depths of the underground gay scene, right out to the other side as a celebrity welcomed at Studio 54 and her mainstream appeal for her performance in Hairspray. The power of this documentary lies in the oscillation between the classic narrative of her rise to fame and an insight into the man behind the devilishly provocative persona. Waters describes seeing Glenn Milstead (aka Divine) at the school bus stop for the first time and marvelling at his innate ‘nellyness,’ an endearment from Waters if ever there was one. And so began one of the most sensational queer cinematic alliances of the century. The film cleverly balances humour with a serious emotional heart. Particularly powerful is an interview with his mother from whom he was estranged for a long period of time. Divine queered cinema before queering things was en vogue. She tore up the screen and fucked everything up. She was, as her friend called her, a ‘cinematic terrorist.’ Her image and her status stood for anarchy in the face of a conservative America grappling with new sexual freedoms and a civil rights movement. As politics, rights and gay emancipation take centre stage today, the sexual and gender anarchism of Divine should be remembered and hallowed by young and old alike. On this note, there would seem no better film to open the festival.
The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs at the BFI Southbank until 24th March.
Text: Joe Cohen