Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Want Candy, and Got Her!: "Beautiful Darling" (2011)



Of all the documentaries I have seen about Andy Warhol and his Superstars, I always found myself fascinated with the one person who had not been given her own film...until now.

When Andy Warhol began making avant-garde films in the 1960's (it was easier than painting, he said), he used as performers anyone who walked through the doors of his infamous Factory. Many of those people are known today, thanks in part to the documentaries about their lives: Brigid Berlin, Nico, Jackie Curtis, and others. Candy Darling, along with Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, made up a star trio of female impersonators who appeared in the film "Women in Revolt" and became Superstars (back when you had to earn your self-anointed title). Of the three, Darling was the most feminine, and the first time I saw her, I was sure she had not been born a man, but was doing some kind of "Victor/Victoria" con on Warhol.

A word about referring to the former James L. Slattery as "her." Candy Darling was crossing gender lines back when a male dressing like a woman could lead to arrest in New York City on "female impersonation" charges. One of the film's interviewees says calling Darling a "he" disrespects her memory, and I would say I agree.

Darling came from Massapequa Park, Long Island, and early pictures indicate she was a very feminine looking young boy. According to her diaries, she felt different all her life, and was wearing makeup and women's clothing as early as she could. She worshipped Kim Novak, and eventually took on the persona of a great Hollywood star, even while sleeping on friends' couches or begging her new boss for money (Warhol notoriously rarely paid anyone for their work). Eventually, Warhol tired of Darling (and the others), and before she could make it big on her own, she died of lymphoma in 1974 at the ripe old age of 29. Between 1968 and her death, she only appeared in eight released films.

Darling was different from Curtis and Woodlawn, in that she was not using her transexuality to make a political statement. She was a mass of contradictions, but she seemed more womanly than all the other drag queens who were in the Factory. Director James Rasin takes all of these contradictions and brings them out for the viewer to see, not taking a stand or sugar coating some of Darling's less savory characteristics. Darling's best friend, and now caretaker of her legacy, is Jeremiah Newton, a giant man who hung around at the Factory forty years ago. He is in possession of Candy's ashes, and decides to bury them along with his own mother's ashes in New York. While Newton is credited as producer on the film, Rasin even finds Newton contradicting himself, saying Candy never prostituted herself to get by, yet we hear Newton on audio from thirty-five years ago say Candy had to.

Newton himself is an interesting figure. After Candy's death, he went and interviewed on audio tape everyone who knew Candy. He talked to Tennessee Williams (who wrote "Small Craft Warnings" for her), as well as others. He went to Candy's mother, who told him to take everything he could carry concerning her former son after Candy died. She then burned the rest, fearing anger from her homophobic new husband, who had no idea he was stepfather to this deceased despicable man/woman (this pissed me off). Poor Jeremiah does have a lot. Candy's diaries, receipts, photographs, and the audio tapes, his archives would be a joy to spend an afternoon going through, but I also mourn the loss of material he couldn't get out because of one man's small mindedness and one mother's fear.

It is Jeremiah's contention that Candy contracted lymphoma through hormone treatments. Candy wanted to look more womanly, but would not commit to a sex change because then she would not be "Candy Darling" anymore. She seems to have been lonely, with many men putting moves on her not knowing she was born a male.

Rasin has done an incredible job condensing a massive amount of material. Thanks to the documentary about Jackie Curtis, "Superstar in a Housedress," some of this is repetition, but it is still done so well. Every aspect of this woman was fascinating, especially to a fan of the underground/avant-garde film scene. Plus, John Waters turns up (again) in yet another documentary, and he is simply a joy to watch and listen to.

Warhol is gone now, as are many of the Factory's "Superstars": Curtis, Edie Sedgwick, and so on. "Beautiful Darling" crystallizes a few years in a talent who left much too early, it would be interesting to see what Candy might have accomplished today. I would hope it would have been something fabulous, and not hosting some awful drag queen competition on a former music video cable channel. That would have been so beneath her. (* * * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Beautiful Darling