There is little question Candy Darling is a key icon of the trans and gender variant communities. In her short life she created a mystique nearly akin to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe among wider culture. Little surprise then, that a showing of James Rasin's new documentary about her, "Beautiful Darling," should fill the 1,400 seat Castro Theater as part of San Francisco's Frameline 34 Film Festival. The film, which was produced by Candy's friend, Jeremiah Newton, is a whirlwind exploration of her reality and how contemporaries experienced her (with widely varying results). Of special note are her diary entries and sketches which reveal genuine artistic talent and humor.
Candy as Kim Novak
Like a kid in a candy store
I almost felt "Beautiful Darling" was a little too brief and cursory to cover its subject matter in a wholly satisfying manner, but it's still a powerful meditation on her life, her talent and, to a surprising extent, the transphobia she encountered. Most people who already know about Candy will relish spending the time exploring her life and for those who haven't yet been exposed to her (as I heard several people saying while waiting in the around-the-block ticket line) it will be a wonderful introduction to one of the most magnetic and unique performers of the 1960s and 70s.
Image before real life
Rasin's film is, for the first third, a non-linear exploration of her imagery and clips. It's framed by Jeremiah Newton preparing to finally bury her cremated ashes in Cherry Valley, NY (where Newton's family is interred). Newton, in need of hip replacement, hobbles with his cane, lovingly cradling his dear friend's remains. Clearly, he has a profound love for her and is still in mourning her loss after 30+ years. Interspersed are brief memories of and thoughts about her her by people who, in some way, knew her. And this is where the film gets spicy and even controversial.
Newton w/Candy in the late 60s (l) and now (r)
Among the people interviewed along with Newton (who met her when he was 16) are Warhol stalwarts Paul Morrisey (who directed her in several films), Taylor Mead (Warhol actor and pal during the first two factory periods... and my ex-next door neighbor!), Gerard Malanga (Warhol's gorgeous right hand man who ran much of the first two factories), and Holly Woodlawn (who was also present at the screening!). They have mostly respectful and loving memories of Candy, albeit pointing out the dichotomy of someone who epitomized glamor yet had to sleep on the couches of friend's apartments and lived a hard-scrabble life which veered between hobnobbing with celebrity and out and out marginalization. She could shine with a brilliance when required yet seem ephemeral and fleeting when she was struggling and marginalized.
Sour grapes/rotten fruit
It's the interviews with former Cafe LaMama actress Helen Hanft, writer celebrity hanger-on Fran Lebowitz and Candy's lawyer when you really start to sense the difficulties in her life. Hanft basically saw Candy as someone who was always playing an unreal part, a put-on. She explains Candy's womanhood as little more than an act and pretending to be a female movie star. Candy's attorney says when he first met her he noticed 5 o'clock shadow underneath her heavy makeup and went out to the sidewalk to throw up. Lebowitz (whose big claim to fame was writing a column for Warhol's Interview magazine which were collected into a couple of best selling collections in the 1980s) makes out and out transphobic slurs about Candy, (and against all trans women). Audible hisses came up from the audience after several of her statements.
If you don't want to fuck
me baby, fuck off...
In one of the most powerful segments of the film, Lebowitz makes a pronouncement that changing your sex is impossible and (basically repeating a classic second wave feminist transphobic meme) that Candy (or any trans woman) can't be a woman because they didn't have a girlhood. In that moment, you realize that for all the hipster attention Candy received, there was always an undercurrent of disgust and dismissiveness about her and who she was. Raisin deftly responds to Lebowitz's ignorance with an emotive statement by trans woman and punk rock icon Jayne County (who, prior to her transition, knew Candy quite well from the Max's Kansas City nightclub) and basically trashes the glib transphobic comments made by other interviewees.
The aging transphobe and the aging punk duke it out
P.T. Barnum with a bad wig
As were his relationships with everyone, Andy Warhol's connection with Candy was complex. He first encountered her in an off-off Broadway play called Glamour, Glory and Gold written by Jackie Curtis (despite Candy's apocryphal tale of him coming into the coffee shop where she worked as a waitress!). He gave her performance the highest possible Warhol compliment... "I wasn't bored." From then on, they became nearly inseparable for several years, perhaps to a greater extent than with any other female superstars like Edie Sedgwick (already crashed and burned and gone from New York), Ultra Violet or Viva. Candy had a natural vivaciousness, unique style and genuine wit those other "faces" lacked. She accompanied Warhol on all his interviews and public appearances, nearly becoming a kind of queer defacto wife.
Candy and Andy at a Velvet Underground concert
She was put in a small role in Paul Morrisey's "Heat" and then made a huge impact in "Women in Revolt" giving perhaps the best and most memorable performance in any Warhol film. She rather naively thought Warhol would promote her into becoming a "normal" actress but, as was usual with Andy, he quickly grew tired of people (or was threatened by those with genuine talent) and soon cynically dismissed her as "a chick with a dick." (yes, that term goes back to the 60s-70s). A.W. (after Warhol) Candy went off to make a brief appearance in the film, Klute (starring her friend Jane Fonda), made two films in Europe, several indy films and especially, starred in a non-trans role as Violet, a trampy girl in Tennessee William's short lived off-broadway play, Small Craft Warnings.
Candy at her Small Craft Warnings dressing room—
she couldn't dress with the ladies or gents
The p*nis discussion
Beautiful Darling also includes some ugly speculation about Candy's sex life, involvement with sex work (Newton swears she did not prostitute herself) and interest in getting SRS. Needless to say, a lot of the interviewees sound like they're talking out their asses and more about their own projections into who they think she was. Truman Capote states "she should never get the operation... or she wouldn't be Candy Darling". Um, okay Truman. Others said she didn't want SRS, but the reality is, this was a woman who didn't have 2 dimes to her name, and slept on friend's living room couches (except when she was in Small Craft Warnings and was put up in a hotel only to rack up huge bills). Unknowing speculation or not, Candy clearly had a very profound female identity which is emphasized by both Woodlawn, Jayne County and by one of the other performers in Small Craft Warnings. Moreover, in a beautiful montage of photos from her childhood, you can see her childish female core come out along with a gentle, sweet personality that many thought was a put on, but seems as if it was deeply a part of her inner self.
Sad, lost girl
The last section of the film is a hard-to-watch recitation of entries from Candy's diary which clearly show her to be morbidly scared of the future, and burnt out by scrambling for an existence and living the life of a "famous transsexual." Rasin's documentary provides a strong glimpse of what it was like as a trans person around the time of Stonewall. Despite one or two anecdotes from when she first moved to NYC from suburban Long Island, Candy was never a street queen. At one point she makes a possibly ironic (yet achingly sweet remark) about wanting to get married and find love. I don't doubt for a moment she meant it.
Shortly before her death at a Catholic Charity Hospital
When Newton mentions she had a growth in her abdomen and was diagnosed with cancer, the film gets rather too sketchy and falls apart. It's suggested by Newton that her estrogen intake was somehow responsible for it, yet Candy officially died from Leukemia, a kind of cancer which is in no way impacted by estrogens. Helen Hanft and others repeat how she was playing a role even when she died... but is this really fair? By all accounts she had a painful death (at 29, not 26 as other biographies have claimed) and, if anything, was upset about how wasted away she was, how she looked and tried to put on a brave face. Newton gained access to Candy's ashes and some of her possessions (including her diary) because Candy's mom married a homophobe and she wanted to eradicate all memories of her oddball child. Many of Candy's possessions and clothes were burned. Warhol's enterprises became increasingly dull, repetitive and commercial, mostly catering to the wealthy and the Candy cult went really underground.
Beautiful but hardly flawless
Beautiful Darling isn't a perfect biography. It leaves out signifiant portions of her life, such as her time in Europe and shortchanges her early, pre-Warhol period in New York and details of her death. Since so much of the story is funneled through Newton's experience with her, I suspect that might have to do with certain aspects being favored over others. Too much time is allotted to Lebowitz and Hanft by virtue of their minor celebrity and not enough to people who knew her as a teen or young adult. My key issue is how so many non-trans people are allowed to discuss and define Candy's gender identity and body. Fortunately, Rasin is wise to counter some of those assumptions with trans people like Jayne County who, perhaps, might have a more informed perspective and call them on their assumptions.
But Beautiful Darling provides such a moving, complex and long needed portrait of her and a glimpse of her magic and beauty that it's hard not to fall in love with Candy all over again. Most contemporary highly-paid actresses seem boring, flat and generic by comparison. As usual, America has a problem truly recognizing its most unique and special artists. Invariably, like Candy, they are beacons for the fantasies and assumptions of others, not valued for their own reality.