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Knight at the Movies: I Am Divine; The Battle of amfAR; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-12-04

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Beloved by the gay community for his outrageous movie collaborations with John Waters; his filthy but hilarious live performances of his disco hits "Native Love," "Born to Be Cheap" and others; and, lastly, embraced by mainstream audiences for the role of Edna Turnblad in Waters' breakthrough hit Hairspray, the drag performer Divine's place in queer and pop culture is assured. Thirty-five years after his death at 42, Divine's star has never dimmed.

As out director Jeffrey Schwarz's entertaining and warm documentary I Am Divine makes clear, nothing would have pleased the 300-pound Divine more. Schwarz's movie has been hugely popular on the LGBT film-fest circuit over the past year. ( It sold out its sole Reeling screening, where it had its Chicago premiere last month, almost from the moment it was announced. ) The movie now opens Friday, Dec. 6, at the Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., for a one-week run.

Growing up in Baltimore, the overweight Harris Glenn Milstead was subjected to daily taunts and beatings for his effeminate manner. Though he found a creative outlet in a budding career as a hairstylist, it wasn't until he became best friends with John Waters in high school that both he and Waters found their true calling—underground camp movies. As Waters and other longtime members of his film inner group recall in Schwarz's movie, it all started as a lark: something to amuse this ragtag bunch of outsiders who loved shocking their "straight" counterparts with their wild behavior.

Together, the duo would take on the world with its legendary camp film collaborations with the fearless, gender-bending Divine starring in Waters' midnight movie classics Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and others, becoming an underground superstar in the process. What had been a hobby became a career noted for its outrageousness which, as Schwarz's film notes, served both star and director for years. But Divine, who luxuriated in the spotlight, craved mainstream success and came to find his infamous reputation a stumbling block. Ironically, reteaming with Waters on Hairspray in 1988 after a long hiatus at long last opened the door to that possibility.

That irony is just one of many in Schwarz's flashy and revealing film. The ultimate outsider turned into underground royalty, Divine's in-your-face style blurred the line between performer and personality and certainly had a hand in revolutionizing pop culture. Schwarz—who is known for Vito and Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, two other documentaries about queer icons—has made a loving biographical portrait that encompasses the legendary icon's rise to infamy while touching on the emotional complexities of its subject. ( The film could have delved more deeply into this area. ) Waters, Mink Stole, Bruce Vilanch, Ricki Lake and others relate Divine's one-of-a-kind story with Waters and Divine's late mother Francis Milstead ( to whom the film is dedicated ), respectively, being the most acerbic and heartfelt. http://www.facets.org/pages/cinematheque/cinematheque.php

Briefly noted: Out directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, multiple Oscar winners, have added to their documentaries chronicling gay history with the nearly feature-length The Battle of amfAR, which premiered on HBO on World AIDS Day Dec. 1 and will play on the network throughout the month. Like their other documentaries ( The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories of the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet, etc. ), the movie artfully presents not only an eye-opening history lesson but does so in a way that makes the history both entertaining and thought provoking.

When AIDS struck in the early '80s, a scientist and a movie star did not have to respond—but they did. The improbable story of how research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim and superstar Elizabeth Taylor joined forces to create amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, to fight against HIV is detailed in Epstein and Friedman's 40-minute movie.

Through archival footage and new interviews with Krim and others, the will of this unstoppable duo to make a difference is detailed. Perhaps most eye-opening for those who weren't there is the climate of fear, hatred and ignorance that was a given about AIDS at the time—all of which makes the brave contributions of these two remarkable women that much more compelling. I have greatly enjoyed Epstein and Friedman's Howl and Lovelace, their forays into narrative features, but I am glad to see another documentary from them about our shared queer history and hope that it isn't their last. http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-battle-of-amfar

Film notes:

—A Holiday Movie for ALL of Us: That's the tagline we gave our indie film Scrooge & Marley, the 2012 modern-day, gay-themed variation on Dickens' A Christmas Carol that is meant to suggest that even though the movie is first and foremost for Our People, it's also for anyone who loves Christmas movies.

See for yourself when Scrooge & Marley ( which I co-wrote and directed and which Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim executive-produced ) returns to the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.—the historic theatre where it debuted a year ago—on Sunday, Dec. 8, at 2:15 p.m. The exclusive Chicago screening will include a festive carol sing-a-long by the swing female a cappella trio The Merry Janes as well as prize giveaways. Cast and crew members will be in attendance ( see my interview with David Pevsner, who stars in the movie, in this issue ), and Blu-rays, DVDs and soundtrack CDs will be available for purchase. http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/events/scrooge-and-marley-2013-dec-8-sun-0215pm

—The Northwest Chicago Film Society—which presents a really eclectic assortment of both well-known and rarely seen films, many from Hollywood's golden era, on 35 and 16mm—has found a new home at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. And it's off to a grand start with director Ernst Lubitch's light-as-a-feather 1939 comedy Ninotchka, which MGM rightly touted with the tagline, "Garbo laughs!" It plays at the Siskel on Sunday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. http://www.northwestchicagofilmsociety.org/

—Breaking Glass Pictures has just released two more queer-themed films on DVD that have made the LGBT film fest circuit over the past year. Mr. Angel is an often fascinating and sexually provocative portrait, filmed over six years, of transgender porn performer Buck Angel while Leather is a rather strange but at times oddly compelling story ( helped by its two hunky leads ) about a city boy falling hard ( pun intended ) for a country boy who spends his time fishing, woodworking and making leather sandals ( no really ).


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