Baltimore's own Divine to be featured at SXSW Festival

Divine as Babs Johnson in "Pink Flamingos," a film by John Waters.
Divine as Babs Johnson in "Pink Flamingos," a film by John Waters. (LAWRENCE IRVINE., BPI/Fine Line Features)

"I Am Divine," a documentary on the life and career of Baltimore's favorite home-grown drag queen, was to make its debut Saturday night at the South by Southwest arts festival in Austin, Texas.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz, interviewed for SXSW's online program, calls his film "the story of how an overweight, effeminate, bullied Baltimore kid transformed himself into an internationally recognized drag superstar."


The documentary includes interviews with director John Waters, who featured Divine in many of his early films and for whom his boyhood friend served as something of a muse, as well as Ricki Lake (Divine's daughter in "Hairspray"), Mink Stole, writer Bruce Vilanch and actor Tab Hunter, who played Divine's drive-in-owning lover in "Polyester."

Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine grew up in Towson and Lutherville, soon becoming friends with Waters, who lived nearby. It was Waters who came up with the name "Divine," often introducing his friend as "the most beautiful woman in the world, almost."


"It's a lovely portrait of a man I miss very much," said Waters, who has seen a rough cut of the documentary. "It shows what a hard-working actor Divine was, what a brave actor he was. … It shows how much of an influence Divine really had."

The film also includes an interview with Divine's mother, Frances Milstead, recorded just a few months before she died in March 2009.

Divine was a mainstay in Waters' early films, starring in "Multiple Maniacs," "Pink Flamingos" (where he cemented his place in cinematic immortality by devouring a palmful of dog excrement) and "Female Trouble," as well as "Hairspray" (where he created the role of Edna Turnblad, later filled on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein and in the movie musical by John Travolta) and "Polyester."

Divine also succeeded in establishing himself outside the Waters oeuvre — recording several disco songs ("You Think You're a Man," "Native Love"), being featured in such non-Waters films as "Lust in the Dust" and Alan Rudolph's "Trouble In Mind," and landing a guest spot on TV's "Married … With Children."

"He was a good actor who started his career as a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother," Waters once said of his longtime friend's roles, "which is a pretty good stretch, especially when you are a 300-pound man."

Divine died in his sleep in March 1988, just a few weeks after the release of "Hairspray," while in Los Angeles rehearsing for "Married … With Children." He was 42.

"I Am Divine" director Schwarz did not immediately respond to an email inquiry from The Baltimore Sun. However, he told SXSW his film's subject "is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels, and freaks."

"I hope this movie reignites interest in this incredible individual who had the last laugh on his tormentors," he added.

Schwarz's earlier documentaries include "Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story," a film on the boundless promoter and ballyhoo impresario that played the Maryland Film Festival in 2009. A later film, "Vito," on "The Celluloid Closet" author Vito Russo, played the 2012 MFF.

Saturday's world premiere wasn't the first time Divine and his friends have made a splash on the film festival circuit. In 1998, Baltimore director Steve Yeager's "Divine Trash," which featured Waters and his coterie and focused on the filming of "Pink Flamingos," won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival.

The annual South by Southwest Arts Festival, which includes a nine-day film component, opened in Austin on Friday. Along with Sundance and September's Toronto International Film Festival, it is one of North America's most influential and most anticipated film gatherings.

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