Our current Movie of the Month, Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind, is a stylish but lowkey neo-noir set in a fictional version of Seattle called Rain City, featuring an incredibly cool soundtrack from Marianne Faithful. Its oddball clash of 1940s noir nostalgia & intensely 1980s fashion trends is a one-of-a-kind novelty in many ways, not least of all in the unconventional casting of its mafioso villain.
For degenerates like us, the main draw of Trouble in Mind is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters comedies. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you loved Divine’s performance in our Movie of the Month and want to see more footage of him performing a male persona.
Out of the Dark (1988)
The closest role Divine played to his mobster villain in Trouble in Mind was an extended “special appearance” cameo as a police detective in 1988’s Out of the Dark. His final acting credit before his death, Out of the Dark is a kind of unofficial class reunion for the major players from the Divine-starring comedy-Western Lust in the Dust: Tab Hunter, Paul Bartel, and Lainie Kazan (among other cult movie superstars like Bud Cort & Karen Black). While the film itself is shameless 80s sleaze about a serial killer in a clown mask who targets phone sex operators in downtown Los Angeles, Divine plays his role as an old-fashioned police detective with the broad, vaudevillian humor of an SNL sketch, complete with a laughably fake mustache.
Out of the Dark is basically a disposable Skinemax slasher, but it’s got charm to spare if you’re already under the spell of its eclectic cast of B-movie all-stars. If you’re looking for a thoughtful examination of the everyday labor exploitations of sex work as an industry, you’re better off looking to Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The “fantasy phone line” girls at Suite Nothings offer much schlockier delights, and Divine’s minor presence is only there to sweeten the deal.
I Am Divine (2013)
Besides Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark, there aren’t many places to see Divine performing a male persona for the camera. He was poised to become a much bigger star out of drag in a recurring role on the hit sitcom Married with Children but died the night before his first scheduled day on-set, tragically cutting short his ascent as a household name. That’s the exact kind of factoid you can pick up from the recent documentary I Am Divine, though, an intimate look at the drag superstar’s life & career. It’s nothing flashy in terms of its filmmaking aesthetics, but I Am Divine is still very much a worthwhile primer for Divine & John Waters devotees who don’t know much about the dastardly duo’s off-screen antics (re: anyone who hasn’t already read Waters’s memoirs like Shock Value & Crackpot). It’s also a great opportunity to see Divine out of drag, just being a normal-ass person, which is fascinating in its own way.
I Am Divine also offers insight into his post-Dreamlanders career, including the era when he filmed Trouble in Mind. I even picked up this factoid about our Movie of the Month long before we watched it: the gigantic diamond earring Divine rocks in the film was not provided by wardrobe but by the actor himself. He was super proud of saving up for that hunk of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen (and I never would have caught that detail without the documentary).
Of course, the very best source for Divine Content is always going to be his collaborations with John Waters. The only reason seeing Divine out of drag outside of a John Waters film is a novelty at all is because their collaborations inarguably defined his career (unless you were around to watch Divine perform live with The Cockettes or as a disco act, you lucky fuck). Divine did appear out of drag in a couple Waters films, even if only briefly. The foremost example of this might be the stunt in 1974’s Female Trouble in which Divine effectively rapes himself on a dirty mattress while playing two separate characters (teenage runaway Dawn Davenport and local pervert Earl Peterson). It’s a horrific gag, but it’s one played so broadly & grotesquely that you cannot take serious offense to the provocation – the John Waters specialty.
I firmly believe his best work out of drag is in the film Hairspray, though, another Waters picture where Divine plays dual roles. His housewife caricature Edna Turnblad rightly gets the most attention in the film (if not only for the uncanny horror of John Travolta’s reprisal of the role), but he also makes for a great male villain in the proudly racist TV station manager Arvin Hodgepile. The seething, grotesque bigotry that oozes out of Divine in that role is incredibly upsetting, and the character feels way more specific & nuanced than the broad caricatures he played in Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark. It feels as if he were channeling some monstrous authority figure from his own youth that he despised, and you can feel that dark energy flowing through the disgusting pig. Of all of Divine’s performances in man-drag, the one in Hairspray is the one that lands as the most memorable & authentic to me. It’s the one that best hints that he might have pulled off a successful career beyond his John Waters collaborations had he not died so suddenly in his early 40s.