Here is the transcription of Cult Film Historian Darrell Buxton’s introduction to the excellent I AM DIVINE, the Fringe Cinema screened over the weekend.
Good evening, welcome to QUAD for a celebration of possibly the most flamboyant, flagrantly outrageous character the movie business has ever known. My name’s Darrell Buxton and I’m here to say a few words before our screening of I AM DIVINE.
‘People’ magazine once described Divine as “the Goddess of Gross, the Punk Elephant, the Big Bad Mama of the midnight movies, a Miss Piggy for the blissfully depraved”. Drag queens may come and go, but when Harris Glenn Milstead poured his 300 lb frame into a shocking pink dress, painted on eyebrows so severe you could cut yourself on them, and topped off the ensemble with a wig Dolly Parton would envy and a sneer to outdo the best scowling efforts of Johnny Rotten, we stopped in our tracks.
Baltimore, or ‘Balmer’ as the locals call it, is a hotbed of talent. To prove that statement, David Hasselhoff was born there, so too were Edgar Allan Poe, Mama Cass Elliott from The Mamas and The Papas, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass, harmonica wizard Larry Adler, tennis star Pam Shriver, and baseball legend Babe Ruth. The writer of America’s national anthem ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, Francis Scott Keys, was a local too. During the past thirty years, movie and tv director Barry Levinson has managed to use Baltimore as a base and setting for much of his work, including films like DINER, TIN MEN, AVALON and LIBERTY HEIGHTS, as well as the small screen’s acclaimed police drama ‘Homicide: Life On The Street’. However, to cult movie fans and lovers of the extreme, Baltimore means just one thing – the films of John Waters.
Pencil-moustached, wiry, slick and sleazy, John Waters made a series of shocking bad-taste short films during the 1960s, progressing to feature-length fare throughout the seventies that proved even harder for moral, straight America to stomach. In possible imitation or parody of the Andy Warhol Superstars at New York’s Factory, Waters used a bunch of weirdos, misfits, anti-social and unemployable types as a stock company, calling them The Dreamlanders. Harris Glenn Milstead soon emerged as the key figure in the group, their Elizabeth Taylor – son of a well to do middle class family, but struggling with his weight, his sexuality, and his place in life, he did what any self-respecting figure might do in such circumstances, embracing his problems, making virtues of them, and giving himself the ultimate makeover. From this chrysalis emerged the biggest butterfly in history – Divine was born. The world has never been the same since.
If you ever find yourself chatting about the Waters movies, talk inevitably soon turns to 1972’s PINK FLAMINGOS, the plot of which revolves around a heated competition to find “the filthiest person alive”. You know that old gag about eroticism being where you do it with a feather, perversion being where you do it with the whole chicken? Well there’s a scene in PINK FLAMINGOS which illustrates that particular modern proverb! After 90 minutes of depravity, including baby farming, flashing, a gift-wrapped turd, the Man With The Singing Asshole giving an unforgettable performance of ‘Surfin’ Bird’, furniture-licking, incestuous blow jobs, cannibalism and castration, the entire carnival of deviance climaxes with the topper to end them all, as Divine munches on a freshly-laid dogshit. For me, however, Waters and Divine outdid themselves in their next picture, FEMALE TROUBLE, creating a scene unique in cinema history as Divine’s character, wayward tramp delinquent schoolgirl Dawn Davenport, has sex in a grubby layby with a sweaty leering truck driver – also played by Milstead, in one of his few screen appearances as a male character. Go fuck yourself, as they say.
Appearances for director Paul Bartel in comedy western LUST IN THE DUST, and for Alan Rudolph in TROUBLE IN MIND, gave Divine work away from the Waters troupe, although the former film was something of a diluted Waters copy. TROUBLE IN MIND was more ambitious, however, a vaguely futuristic thriller in which Divine took a serious role as male crime boss Hilly Blue. Milstead didn’t ditch the more familiar side of his career, though, since throughout this period Divine relaunched herself as a disco diva, recording dance floor classics like ‘Shoot Your Shot’ and ‘You Think You’re A Man’, and became a regular presence on the London gay scene, befriending the likes of Zandra Rhodes and Lily Savage-era Paul O’Grady.
Tonight’s documentary, I AM DIVINE, gives us the full story from Harris Glenn Milstead’s rise from his suburban upbringing to his arrival as undisputed Queen of Trash, with anecdotes and confessions galore from a host of those who orbited Divine’s presence. The parade of guests includes Waters and many of the surviving Dreamlanders, and it would be nice to think that viewers exit screenings of this epic life story intent on discovering or reigniting their love for Divine’s extraordinary screen performances. Raped by a monster lobster in MULTIPLE MANIACS, having her feet amputated by ‘Doctor Coathanger’ in MONDO TRASHO, ruining a family Christmas by ranting about cha-cha heels and then pushing the decorated tree on top of her distraught mother in FEMALE TROUBLE, in what may just be the defining Divine moment, or dominating PINK FLAMINGOS from lurid beginning to coprophiliac finale, truly this is a heroine for our times, in your face, anti-respectable, loud, lewd, colourful, sexy, and utterly unique. We’re in for ninety minutes of gutter heaven.
Don’t miss more Divine madness in September’s Fringe Odorama Scratch N Sniff screenings.