Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
“I am Divine”: From Deviance to Respectability
Jeffrey Schwarz is a documentarian who has made several films about the gay experience in America. (He also happens to be my nephew.) Jeffrey’s recent nonfiction biopic Vito, which was a straightforward, respectful study of an effective New York advocate for gay rights, won an Emmy in 2013 for best researched documentary. His latest work, I am Divine, was recently shown in New York City, and has appeared at various film festivals. The movie interlards wild scenes from films starring Divine with snippets from many interviews with John Waters and other members of the world of entertainment who worked with Divine, and also, most notably, with his mother, whose forthright participation immensely enriches the film.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, in Baltimore, MD, Divine went through his early life as a loner and a victim of intense bullying in high school. He hung out with a bohemian crowd as a young man and got to know local people in the arts, including his neighbor John Waters, a maker of underground films that appealed to gay audiences. His early roles in Waters’ films were very ribald, brash, and sought to shock audiences as much as possible. Over the years, Divine became well known as an exuberant cross-dressing performer in gay clubs as well as in the movies. Always a hearty eater, he became obese and used his size as an element of his uninhibited, flagrantly sexual stage persona. He can now be seen as ahead of his time, not only because of his gender-bending, but also because his music acts paralleled punk rock. The documentary shows many clips from his film appearances over the past decades as well as from his live performances. Until late in his career, he is usually shown in drag and garish makeup. Divine’s personal life, particularly the intimate parts, remains a mystery. The film mentions a few men who were said to be his lovers, but they don’t appear on screen. According to Jeff, none he would have liked to talk with are still alive.
His parents rejected Glenn when he first came out to them but by the end of his life his mother accepted his different life style and gender orientation. Part of that acceptance, as probably was the case with many of his admirers in the straight world, came from Divine’s evolution from a completely outrageous outsider to an actor who sought male roles. Divine made his bones by playing a mother in John Waters’ “Hair Spray,” a very funny film about how a very special kind of racial integration was achieved on the dance floor of a Baltimore-based Dick Clark-like teen television show. Here, as a larger-than-life straight woman, Divine showed his range as an actor. Eventually he was even viewed by casting directors as capable of playing straight male roles
All of this transformation took place under the mentoring of John Waters, who himself made the transition over time from outsider gay director to respectable gay director. There was interdependence, perhaps even a symbiotic relationship, between auteur and actor/singer that emerged from an American bohemian lifestyle that involved gays and straights and was held together by their enthusiasm for drugs. Later, gays emerged from bohemianism to a new normal; they moved into respectability, today that includes marriage with legal guarantees.
Both Waters and Divine found their place in the sun, but the extremely overweight Divine died unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Publicity shots of this actor who sought male roles show him as a cheerful, almost cherubic, older man. He died the night before he was to perform on a popular television show, “Married with Children.”
I am Divine is likely to get more attention than Vito, which was basically a civil rights story, because the outrageous diva it captures says something about the gay experience that fits into the broader story of American minorities who have sought to end discrimination and prejudice. But more should have been done with that. The scope of the film would have been broadened by the addition of comments by someone who put these careers in the context of the gay experience in America which has moved, with warp speed, from being lives lived in the shadows, the coded world of gay culture and marginal social status, to the very public awareness of gayness being just another feature of largely quotidian lives. Even a wild thing like Divine, at least in seeking a career as a conventional actor, knew how important a normal-appearing life, if not a truly normal life, could be.
Normalization has taken place for gays but there is much still to say about how that shift in status has taken place and the new problems that have emerged in relation to being homosexual in this country. From the Interactionist sociological perspective (I have Sussman, Goffman and Becker in mind), the story of the gay experience in America moves from how it is to be in the closet to how it is to be open about one’s gender orientation. While still regarded as “the other” in American society, the problems for gay men shifts radically from having to maintain secrecy, usually from an employer or landlord, to the management of information about one’s private life, which is a problem faced by most minorities. The creation of permanent or more permanent relationships through marital vows or long-term intimacy among gay men, somewhat similar to what used to be called “a Boston marriage” when it occurred among lesbians who lived together, produces issues regarding how to refer to one another privately or in public. In turn, how others, whether straight or gay, refer to non-heterosexual couples is not at all that certain at this point in time. All humans develop models of responses of others to themselves and attempt to use them to maintain or establish easeful interaction.
This shift in focus—from information to situation—is all the more reason that I am Divine could benefit from an academic viewpoint on this fascinating man, his relationships, and the world he enriched.