Greg In Hollywood chats with Jeffrey Schwarz, the director of the documentary “I Am Divine”
Documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has enjoyed working the film festival circuit this year showing his movie about the drag legend known as Divine.
The film I Am Divine, which screened Saturday at QFest in Long Beach, has given audiences a taste of who this bigger-than-life character was and his impact on drag culture.
‘A lot of the drag queens that you see that are really outrageous and over-the-top and kind of scary, Divine spearheaded all of that,’ Schwarz told me in a recent interview.
‘So kids who think they don’t know Divine who enjoy drag culture, they will love meeting Divine. He’s sort of like a Queen Mother of us all. There would be no Lady GaGa without Divine. It could have been Divine’s Drag Race instead of RuPaul’s Drag Race. You never know.’
Harris Glenn Milstead grew up in Baltimore and was pals with future filmmaker John Waters who would help him create the Divine character and direct him in such cult classic movies as Pink Flamingos, Lust in the Dust, Polyester, Female Trouble, Mondo Trasho and the more mainstream Hairspray.
‘Divine is somebody who is in a lot of ways very typical of the way a lot of gay kids grow up,’ Schwarz says. ‘ He grew up in the 60s in suburban Baltimore, he was overweight, he was effeminate, he was bullied and picked on every day in school. He had a really rough time of it. It wasn’t until he met John Waters and these other people in his town who were the other outsiders who related to him, accepted him and helped him to accept himself and encouraged the drag too.’
Before settling into the outrageous character of Divine, Milstead just wanted to be pretty.
‘He was a more conventional drag queen early on, he wanted to be like a lot of the drag queens of the time – he wanted to look like a real lady,’ Schwarz says. ‘He wanted to be glamorous and beautiful like a Miss America type but because of his size and his rambunctious nature, he could never fit into that world. So instead of hiding the weight, he accentuated it along with John Waters’ encouragement and they created the Divine character together.’
Milstead died at the age of 42 in 1988 of an enlarged heart.
Schwarz believes he still had a lot of opportunities ahead after more than two decades of steadily increasing fame.
‘He loved doing the Divine character but it was a lot of work and there was a skilled actor underneath all of it that sometimes got lost because all you could see was the exterior,’ the filmmaker says.
‘He wanted to play roles out of drag and towards the end of his life he did start getting cast in movies outside of drag,’ Schwarz adds. ‘His last movie that he was cast in was playing a gay uncle on Married With Children. That was going to be his breakthrough role in mainstream television. He passed away literally the night before he was going to tape the episode. I think he would have gone on to do more mainstream roles.’
‘I just love his story, it’s sort of an empowerment story and it’s a story that dreams can come true.’