Image © 2017 The Criterion Collection
This month marks the 29th anniversary since the death of Divine, the actor, singer and drag queen most famous for the films he made with his friend and fellow Baltimore native, John Waters. Recently, a full six months after its release in North America, the United Kingdom was blessed with the limited theatrical release of the newly restored version of Waters’ second film 1970’s Multiple Maniacs. On the 21st of this month, The Criterion Collection will be releasing the title on DVD and Blu-Ray. For fans, it is essential viewing.
For mainstream audiences the 1988 feel-good Hairspray, its subsequent Broadway musical adaptation and its 2007 cinematic re-adaptation are likely the first exposure to the duo. For those casual fans curious about the humble beginnings of Waters and his muse Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead) Multiple Maniacs is as good a starting point as any and perhaps a gentler introduction to the pair’s oeuvre than the more famous Pink Flamingos (1972.)
The plot of Multiple Maniacs concerns “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” where unsuspecting middle-class punters pay to see late ‘60s American horrors such as “real homosexuals kissing.” The acts take place in a Baltimore roadside carnival scam where everyone is eventually humorously robbed, humiliated or killed. Like all of Waters’ early work with Divine, the story is secondary to the visuals, which are indeed meant to shock and include simulated sexual acts with a rosary inside a real church and a sexual assault perpetrated by a giant lobster.
Past reviews have referred to the film as “outrageous”, and “grotesque.” It is also agreed by many to be very funny. Indeed, it was a hell of a good time to watch it with an audience at the British Film Institute.
In the 47 years since its initial release, the one word that has probably has never been associated with Multiple Maniacs is charming. Not charming as a film like Marley and Me (which is arguably a more traumatic viewing experience) but charming like your favorite nephew’s first student film that had cardboard monsters running around in it. The kind of charming where the director and crew had not yet mastered the technical skills associated with good filmmaking but whose results made it abundantly clear that those kids put their hearts and souls into every frame.
Rather than being mean-spirited, the scenes of violence in Multiple Maniacs are frequently evocative of child’s play. Divine’s knife strikes miss their intended targets by a good 18 inches. Compared to modern rebellious cinema, such as the New French Extremity movement, this film feels innocent. The missed cues, flubbed dialogue, out-of-focus zooms and awkward editing only add to the experience and more than once, I found myself rooting for Edith Massey (the egg lady from Pink Flamingos, 1972) to get through a whole take without missing a line.
Of course, as with all of Waters’ earlier works, Divine is the standout performer of the piece. He effortlessly recites pages upon pages of dialogue without missing a word. He hits all of his marks perfectly and ultimately elevates the proceedings to new heights in his high heels. The camera loved him, whether he played men or women. Waters knew this and his instinct to showcase Divine’s talents whenever possible was part of what made him into the cult hero director he is today. Had Divine lived, he would have no doubt enjoyed the same enduring success.
As fate would have it, March 7th is the 29th anniversary of Divine’s death. He died of heart failure at the age of 42 in 1988 on the eve of starting work on what was likely to become a groundbreaking recurring role as the openly gay Uncle Otto on the American sitcom Married With Children.
Of his late friend and long-time collaborator, Waters once said “I think he changed drag queens forever. Ru Paul’s show wouldn’t be there. His legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers.”
So, in honor of the great Divine, (and John Waters who was recently bestowed the Writers’ Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award) pick yourself up a copy of Criterion’s newly restored Multiple Maniacs on DVD or Blu-Ray, make some popcorn and have some friends around. Soon you’ll all be quoting such award-winning lines as “I love you so fucking much…I could shit!”