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Sean P. Means: A Divine finish for Damn These Heels! festival

Published July 11, 2013 10:21 am

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Jeffrey Schwarz proudly proclaims that he has "always worshipped at the altar of Divine and John Waters."

"Anyone who feels like an outsider growing up can certainly relate to the world that they created and the way they lived their lives," Schwarz said in an email interview this week. The Utah premiere of his documentary "I Am Divine" is the closing-night film of the Damn These Heels! LGBT Film Festival.

Salt Lake City "is more queer than people know," Schwarz said. And he's thrilled that audiences here will get to know more about Divine, the legendary drag performer and muse of John Waters' most familiar and most outlandish films.

The continuing success of Damn These Heels! backs up Schwarz's appraisal of Salt Lake City's queer factor. The film festival, now in its 10th year, has been coming into its own in the past few years. This year's event, taking over both theaters at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, is the biggest ever, with 21 feature films on the program.

The opening-night film, director Darren Stein's high-school comedy "G.B.F.," follows the exploits of Tanner (Michael J. Willett), who is outed to his high-school classmates — and finds himself being fought over by the school's three queen bees (Sasha Pieterse from "Pretty Little Liars," Andrea Bowen from "Desperate Housewives" and Xosha Roquemore), who think a "gay best friend" is the must-have fashion accessory. The comedy combines raunchy laughs with some pointed social commentary, along with a fair number of arrows aimed at Mormonism. Bowen's character is LDS and eager to "save" Tanner, with the help of an evangelical classmate played by Evanna Lynch, better known as Luna Lovegood from the "Harry Potter" films.

Saturday night's centerpiece film is one of the more-acclaimed international movies of the summer, French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways." It stars Melvil Poupaud as a man who, at 35, decides he wants to live his life as a woman — which comes as a shock to his longtime girlfriend (Suzanne Clément). The movie opens in a regular run in Salt Lake City on July 19.

Other intriguing titles in the festival include "Hot Guys With Guns," a gay satire of buddy-cop action movies; the vampire comedy "Chastity Bites"; and the documentary "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia," a documentary profile of the late author.

Schwarz's "I Am Divine" closes out the three-day festival, and it's a fond appreciation of one of queer cinema's pioneering figures.

Born Harris Glen Milstead in Baltimore just months after the end of World War II, Divine became the outrageous star of Waters' over-the-top cult classics. He was the star of Waters' films "Mondo Trasho," "Female Trouble" and the infamous "Pink Flamingos," in which his character strived to be "the filthiest person alive" — and, in the nauseating final scene in which he puts dog poop in his mouth, he succeeded.

Schwarz's documentary, though, shows Divine as more than just an outrageous performer. It details his personal struggles. He was bullied as a kid and rejected by his mother — though she later reconnected with her son. He faced health battles due to his weight and fought typecasting in Hollywood as he strived to become a serious character actor (as evidenced by roles in Alan Rudolph's "Trouble in Mind" and Waters' family-film classic "Hairspray") before his untimely death in 1988.

"Watching him on screen was thrilling," Schwarz said of Divine. "He was so fully committed to the characters he played, and the way he lived his life not caring what anyone thought about him was certainly inspiring."

Schwarz first secured Waters' blessing. "He said, 'I trust you. This will be a good movie.' So that's all I needed to hear," Schwarz said. Waters also vouched for Schwarz with many of Divine's old acquaintances, who agreed to be interviewed.

Among the film's most touching interviews is with Divine's mother, Frances Milstead. "She was totally supportive and sent me some incredible rare photos and home movies of Divine when he was growing up," Schwarz said. "She had a great life in Florida, surrounded by all these gay guys who adored her and made every day special." Frances Milstead died in 2009.

Divine was different from most drag artists, then or now. "He was more of a drag terrorist," Schwarz said. "So many of the queens on 'RuPaul's Drag Race' are going for that glamorous, high-end fashion model look. Divine was not about that at all. He wasn't interested in 'passing' as a real woman, but to accentuate everything that society tries to tell you to hide."

Schwarz speculates that if Divine had not died at 43, "today he'd be show-business royalty. I hope this film gives him what he wanted in life, to be appreciated and respected and not dismissed as a novelty act."

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. —

Damn These Heels!

The 10th annual Damn These Heels! LGBT Film Festival.

When • Friday through Sunday, July 12-14.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway (300 South), Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $6 per screening or $30 for a 10-screening pass, available at ArtTix.

Information • For a schedule and program of festival films, go to http://www.utahfilmcenter.com.