Cult cinema

The outsized outrageousness of drag artist Divine

The star of John Waters’s cult classic ‘Multiple Maniacs’, which is showing at the Mumbai Film Festival, stretched the boundaries of art.

One of the films playing in the restored classics section of the Mumbai Film Festival 2016 is John Waters’s 1970 black comedy Multiple Maniacs. Waters’s second feature film has been restored by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, and is currently making the rounds of cine festivals worldwide.

The film, directed by 24-year-old Waters under his Dreamland Studios banner, was both criticised and appreciated for its nonsensical plot, which includes a lesbian sex scene inside a church and a rape committed by a lobster. The film starred Waters regulars – a bunch of actors who called themselves the Dreamlanders after his studio – whose most famous member was the drag queen Divine.

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‘Multiple Maniacs’.

Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine worked as a female hairdresser in Baltimore, where he was born, before shifting to drag performances. His extravagant stage persona caught the eye of Waters, who went on to cast Divine in a number of films, including Mondo Trasho (1969), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974).

Harris Glenn Milstead.
Harris Glenn Milstead.

It was Multiple Maniacs, however, that received the most attention. Starring Divine as the leader of a show called the Cavalcade of Perversion, the film is a seemingly never-ending nod to the obscene and the unpalatable. Patrons at Cavalcade shows are recklessly murdered and a cow’s heart is eaten raw. Sexual assault takes place with an insouciance that stretches the definition of art.

Yet, the film found a resonance with the counterculture spirit of the times and was patronised by hippies, bikers and anti-Vietnam protestors. Its negation of accepted film conventions – the plot is little more than the unconnected antics of the protagonist – mirrored the essential difference of the Dreamlanders. Peopled by queers, the troupe looked to make unapologetic art that would shock viewers.

This ability to elicit disgust from audience members was a common Waters-Divine shtick. In his uproarious 1999 documentary, Divine Trash, Steve Yaeger focused on that unabashed grotesquerie, Pink Flamingos, especially its last scene in which Divine is shown eating dog poo, which unsuspecting audiences were made to watch as they bit into chocolate served to them during screenings. Many threw up.

The film brought Divine much notoriety for his outsize onscreen behaviour, a delicious mix of camp and horror. As in his riotous real-life performances, Divine shaved back his hairline and applied makeup liberally to create an outrageous visage that nevertheless attracted laughter. His obesity – which became the cause of his death in 1988 – was something to adorn and flaunt, and in that respect, was an exaggerated blowback against prettifying notions of female beauty that were to overtake the film and glamour worlds in the coming years.

In later life, Divine came to regret his earlier choices which she believed hampered his standing as an actor. Yet, in his 2013 film, I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwartz showed how Milstead intuitively understood the laws of celebrity and exploited them to make a name for himself. With his last film, Hairspray (1988), Milstead finally found mainstream acceptance as the mother of the talented but overweight Tracy, in a role that must have especially appealed to him because it reflected his own story.

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‘I am Divine’.
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