Such is the price of notoriety that the taste of dog shit has nothing on the taste of saying the exact same words over and over and over again. Glenn Milstead may have been persuaded by his boyhood friend John Waters to ingest freshly squeezed dog feces on camera while the two were filming their midnight-movie classic Pink Flamingos only after Waters goaded, “Do you want to be famous or not?” But though the move rocketed both toward cult superstardom, the meal only tainted the breath of one, and one of the suggestions of Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary portrait I Am Divine is that the act was committed by the one who actually didn’t have as strong a symbiotic taste for infamy as the other.
Of course, the truth is never as simple as friends and family tend to paint it postmortem, and clearly the late Milstead, under his nom de guerre Divine, had his sights set on a tarnished sort of fame from the very beginning; his earliest appearances in drag were modeled after Elizabeth Taylor, who in the ’60s was reaching her peak as the queen of scandal. And in his era, it’s not like he had a choice of what sort of fame he’d be able to attain. Early on in the doc, Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, who archival pictures reveal was exactly the sort of wild-coiffed and silver-tongued Baltimore matriarch Waters ribbed in his films, matter-of-factly reminisces about how the family pediatrician told her that his biggest medical concern over her son was that he was demonstrating too many feminine traits. Years later, Divine’s cross-dressing, drugged-up, shoplifting antics as a teen would lead her to disown him for decades.
Luckily for Divine, he had a network of misfits and castoffs to support and, eventually, launch him into the limelight. And though I Am Divine may boil down to your average procession-of-talking-heads template, it’s still enlivened by the raucous words from that same band of outcasts, including Waters (as always, one of the most gifted storytellers extant), Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, and Mary Vivian Pearce, but also acquaintances and co-stars he picked up along the way, like Holly Woodlawn (believably mock-jealous of the fame and boy toys Divine enjoyed), Ricky Lake, and Tab Hunter, the teen heartthrob Divine got to swap spit with on camera in Polyester, a scene that actually gave Divine nervous butterflies. This from the star who once shouted, “I fucked Richard Speck,” while licking a dead fish and jumping on a trampoline.
If the portrait they all paint of their 300-pound teddy bear (that’s “teddy” in the Phil Petrillo sense) is indeed accurate, they may indeed be better spokespeople for his legacy than the shy, modest performer would have been himself. He appears only sporadically in archival footage of TV interviews, and even taking into account both his status as a punk trailblazer and America’s then fully mounted Moral Majority revolution, it’s still eye-opening to behold the condescension and overstated indignation his interviewers would invariably bring to the table in the 1980s. Waters is fond of saying it was more fun to be gay when it carried with it an outlaw status, but you also understand why he seems on the verge of tears when reminiscing how Divine, at the premiere of Hairspray, marveled, “Can you believe we made it this far?”