Out on DVD today, I Am Divine is the story of Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, aka the most beautiful woman in the world. Director Jeffrey Schwarz (who previously won an Emmy for HBO documentary Vito) talks about his big-hearted subject and equally big-hearted film, which stormed 2013’s festival circuit.
Heidi Honeycutt, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You clearly have a love of genre, underground and queer cinema, but also seem dedicated to telling the stories of human beings who took extraordinary chances in cinema. What is it you find so compelling about these groundbreakers?
Jeffrey Schwarz (JS): I started making films to celebrate iconic, larger-than-life individuals with a great story to tell. The people I choose to make movies about are all rebels and outsiders who created a finely-tuned persona that helped cover up any insecurities they may have had. People like horror movie maestro William Castle [subject of 2007’s Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story], ’70s porn icon Jack Wrangler [2008’s Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon], and, of course, Divine fit into that category. I fall in love with these people, warts and all, and want to illustrate their journeys on film and take an audience for a ride.
My previous film, Vito, was about the beloved gay activist and film scholar Vito Russo. He’s someone that I felt had been marginalized over the years and I wanted to reinvigorate his memory. That’s the main motivation – helping to secure the legacy of people I feel have been neglected or unappreciated by the mainstream culture.I’m attracted to this period where everything was starting to open up in this incredible way, after so many years of repression. People like Vito Russo, Divine and Jack Wrangler were able to ride this wave, this explosion of queer sexuality, but to also help to create the environment.
Vito was clearly a gay activist. Divine would never have considered himself an activist, but at the same time, just being who he was, he inspired so many people. He really did encourage people to be who they were no matter what society was telling them. He said: Be yourself, and love yourself. Vito had the same message, although he was doing it in a more explicitly political way. It was political for Divine to walk down the street in downtown Baltimore in full drag. That was a radical statement. He would never have been able to do that as Glenn, but as Divine he could do that.
MM: Rather than focus on what was “wrong” with Divine, your documentary is instead about celebrating the fun characters, his happiness acting and performing, and finding a way to be himself more fully. Why is it important for filmmakers and artists to take risks to be themselves, even if that isn’t marketable in the mainstream?
JS: When he was growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused mercilessly. After meeting John Waters and the Dreamland crew he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenage rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself. I feel his story shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you love yourself. I Am Divine is kind of the ultimate “It Gets Better” story. He’s a poster child for misfit youth. He can inspire people, whether they’re queer or not, to find inspiration to fulfill their own creative destiny.
MM: What is your favorite Divine film, and why?
JS: Female Trouble, for sure. You really get to see all the faces of Divine – from teenage jezebel to mass murderer and jailhouse lesbian. I also love Polyester. It’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, and you get to see Divine as a victim, but Female Trouble is the one I can watch over and over and quote all the lines.
MM: What is your next project, and why?
JS: My next project is called Tab Hunter Confidential. It’s the story of matinée idol Tab Hunter, and how he went from being a teenage stable boy to one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s. He was gay, of course, and the movie is about the tension between being presented as the boy next door and every girl’s dream date, but in reality keeping a very big secret. I met him when we interviewed him for I Am Divine about co-starring in John Waters’ Polyester. It’s another story of someone who creates a finely tuned persona, but what’s going on underneath the surface is something entirely different.
MM: If someone made a documentary about your film career, what do you hope they title it?
JS: I’d say Triumph of the Will but Leni Reifenstahl already used it. MM
I Am Divine is released on DVD April 8, 2014.
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