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30 years ago, Divine told the world he was ready for Hollywood!
Shortly after the release of his biggest hit, Hairspray, and his untimely death at age 42, Night Flight paid tribute to the groundbreaking midnight movie icon Divine — featuring choice portions from the thoughtful interview we did with him two years earlier — in a profile that originally aired on April 4, 1988. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
When Glenn Milstead first met filmmaker John Waters in Baltimore, Maryland in the ‘60s, it sparked a lifelong artistic collaboration and friendship.
Both of them were from conservative households, and as gay men, had no intention of leading the kind of quiet, closeted lives others resigned themselves to back then.
Waters bestowed the stage name “Divine” to Milstead, and borrowing elements from the exploitation movies and melodramas they loved, they became the public faces of a gleefully shocking series of films.
Waters with Divine on the set of this first movie with synch sound, Multiple Maniacs. (photo by Nelson Giles)
Divine lived the early part of his professional life very much like the loud and strong-willed characters he played in Waters’ films.
When not making movies, he acted in avant-garde plays and made wild nightclub appearances where he attempted bizarre stunts. He indulged in expensive tastes that his income could not sustain, and after repeated clashes with his parents over his debts, spent many years estranged from them.
The Divine we hear from in 1986 was a much more relaxed, soft-spoken individual. By this time, he had received positive reviews from mainstream critics for his role in Waters’ romantic satire Polyester, and had reconciled with his family.
If you’re used to seeing Polyester on high-quality widescreen DVD or streaming channels, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the old clips in this episode, as they reveal boom microphones and lighting grids that were meant to be cropped out in theater projection.
For early generations of home video viewers, this was how they had to watch Polyester, wondering if the exposed equipment was an intentional directorial decision!
Divine also addresses his foray into dance music, and you’ll get to see music videos for two of his songs, “I’m So Beautiful” and “Hard Magic.”
“I’m So Beautiful” is particularly notable as an early credit for producer Pete Waterman and songwriters Mike Stock and Matt Aiken, who, as Stock Aiken Waterman, created worldwide hit singles like Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” and the immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.
Imagine the possibilities if they had thought to team up Rick and Divine on a duet!
The most exciting, and retroactively poignant, part of the interview comes as Divine discusses his recent work with other filmmakers and his growing mainstream popularity, along with clips from those movies.
The actor talks with particular pleasure about his serious, non-campy role of gangster Hilly Blue in writer/director Alan Rudolph’s ethereal noir drama Trouble in Mind.
Rudolph specifically created the character for Divine, casting him opposite Academy Award nominees Kris Kristofferson and Keith Carradine. Divine enjoyed playing a dramatic male character and demonstrating his ability to act in roles that did not require female drag.
America seemed to be more receptive to Divine at this time, but they still weren’t quite ready for the movies that made him famous.
In his 1983 book of essays Crackpot, John Waters talked about how, after New Line Cinema had partnered with video label Media to create the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, they had planned to reissue his early films:
“[They] had the package designed, a great ad campaign ready (“Let’s get trash back into the homes where it belongs!”) and I was all set to go on a promotional tour. When the company’s salesmen and jobbers in the Midwest saw the product they reportedly flipped out and refused to sell them. Mutiny. I was crushed. But because they had already sent out the press releases announcing the cassettes, the video reviewers had a better story than if the videos had been released without a hitch. So another [label] offered more money than we had with the first deal.”
One of those titles, Waters’ and Divine’s first feature Mondo Trasho, has never been reissued on DVD, and likely won’t be, due to its heavy use of unlicensed music. So if you see that tape in a thrift or second hand store, you’d better grab it!
Another long-unavailable title from that package, Multiple Maniacs, is currently back in theaters in a state-of-the-art restoration from Janus Films, with a Criterion BluRay and DVD release to follow.
You can see the original unrestored clips from the movie in this episode, and compare them to the footage in this new trailer for the reissue:
After initially taping this interview, Waters and Divine would make their most successful collaboration, 1988’s Hairspray.
Divine played in drag once more, as the mother of heroine Tracy Turnblad, played by Ricki Lake, a chubby girl who becomes the most popular dancer on an early ‘60s Baltimore teen show, and uses her fame to get the show integrated.
The most shocking aspect of the movie was its family-friendly PG rating, though it still had Waters’ trademark grotesque humor.
Hairspray brought Divine the most glowing reviews of his career, and before the film had been released, he had booked more projects. The film did modest business in its theatrical run, but later became a frequently rented home video title, and was adapted into a smash 2002 Broadway musical, which itself was turned into a 2007 film.
Sadly, Divine did not live long enough to fully enjoy his achievement. Three weeks after the film’s release, on the eve of taping a guest appearance on “Married…with Children” in Hollywood, the actor died from an enlarged heart on March 7, 1988.