Warhol’s Trans Muse
Transsexual Andy Warhol muse Candy Darling was born a boy, James Slattery, in suburban Long Island in the 1940s. Darling grew up reading movie magazines and set one goal: to become a female film star. When we consider the time and place, it is amazing that Candy achieved her goal—sort of. Darling not only stared in Warhol flicks but even took top billing in a Tennessee Williams play and was eternalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”.
The film is made up diary entries, archival footage, and talking heads like John Waters and Fran Lebowitz. What really struck me was glamorous presence Darling was, with her porcelain skin and blond hair. She becomes fascinating as a study in Darling’s transsexuality: her diary, read by Chloe Sevigny, says: “I’m not a genuine woman, but I’m not interested in genuineness. Darling created a fantasy and lived it until Warhol cast her out and the toxic hormones she was on finally took their toll.
Where the movie is less successful is in digging into her darker realities. There are hints that she managed to look great while living on peanut butter, and whispers about her turning tricks to survive, but we really never get beneath the mystique that Candy so carefully created. There is a bit too much focus on Jeremiah Newton, a co-producer of the film and one of the friend-servants who took care of her.
James Rasin’s documentary is a touching and sensitive biography of Darling. is a sad, lyrical reflection on the foolish worship of movie stars. Jeremiah Newton narrates the story. He was Candy Darling’s closest friend and onetime roommate who appointed himself guardian of her legacy after her death in 1974 from cancer at 29. The movie shows him arranging her burial beside Mr. Newton’s mother in Cherry Valley, N.Y.
His reverence for Candy Darling is not unlike her adolescent worship of Kim Novak. When Candy Darling was still a boy named James L. Slattery, experimenting with cross-dressing while growing up on Long Island, he sent away for an autographed picture of Ms. Novak. We learn that the day it arrived was one of the most important moments of his life. Darling not only resembled his idol and she also affected her breathy, languid style of gracious regality. The film’s most visually resonant images are side-by-side comparisons of Candy Darling acting out scenes from Ms. Novak’s films while striking the same poses.
Darling had a rough life. She had been a high school pariah who was rejected by her homophobic father and even at the height of her fame, lived hand to mouth and slept on people’s couches..
Fran Lebowitz, who spent time in the world of Warhol , remembers when being a female impersonator on the streets of New York was against the law. She relates that when Slattery was growing up, he spent hours reading about and looking at movie-magazine images of untouchable gods and goddesses. This was his escape from the rejection and scorn of straight society. Even after becoming a downtown Warhol celebrity, Darling, who took female hormones, did not want to have the surgery to complete gender reassignment. “I’m not a genuine woman,” she said. “But I’m not interested in genuineness. I’m interested in being the product of a woman.”
She regarded Warhol as her protector and was bitterly disappointed and hurt when he lost interest in his cross-dressing “superstars,” which also included Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis.
The film includes brief excerpts from several of the Warhol movies in which Candy Darling appeared, as well as snippets filmed of her Off Off Broadway appearances. Her best movie role, in which she displayed a nascent talent for satirical comedy, was a version of herself in the Paul Morrissey-Warhol feminist spoof “Women in Revolt”. Excerpts from Candy Darling’s diary, read by Chloë Sevigny (who sounds nothing like her), reveal a streak of tragic self-awareness that lent her narcissism a deep poignancy. “I feel like I’m living in a prison,” she wrote, then named things she couldn’t do that included swimming, visiting relatives, getting a job and having a boyfriend. Her actual sex life remains a matter of speculation. There were those that admired her, but how far these romances progressed isn’t addressed. During adolescence, she fantasized about Laurence Harvey.
Along with the rest of the Warhol crew Candy Darling haunted the notorious back room of Max’s Kansas City, the Union Square restaurant and artists’ hangout. Lebowitz recalls that “basically you’re talking about an entire group of people who would have a tantrum if everyone weren’t paying attention to them.”
One of the things that “Beautiful Darling” does is stand as a cautionary case study of the lust for fame as a way to deal with the emptiness that nothing can fill. One of Darling’s later entries in her diary reads, “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”
We se here that Andy Warhol’s greatest talent was his need to be among people who, like himself, had an almost pathological gift for hiding their true feelings. They made their detachment appear chic to the public. We only see the masks they wore and they worked hard at appearing as if they didn’t care, even when they were having sex. The fact is, and no one dare say it but Warhol and his superstars may have been tremendously boring people.
Candy Darling was one of the opportunistic Warhol’s most lucrative acquisitions. Before calling an end of his friendship with trans phase and cruelly tossing her and Holly Woodland and Jackie Curtis aside, Warhol brought Candy into his Factory because he saw in her a kindred spirit, and her convincingly feminine appearance and nostalgia for old Hollywood made an indelible impression on him. No other Warhol superstar came closest to flirting with mainstream stardom, having been photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, sung about by Lou Reed, and acted in a well-received play by Tennessee Williams.
This documentary is unable to dispel the cloud that still hangs over Candy. He was a boy who dreamed of being a girl and a Hollywood star, because to live any other way would have meant oblivion, the Candy that we see here is something of an archetype: another transgender person struggling with rejection and finding freedom by flirting with, or toying with the idea of success in show business. We become very aware of her sense of displacement and she remains a mystery.
We hear bits of audio that Newton recorded shortly after Candy’s death, of her close friends and associates (like Tennessee Williams) remembering what it was like to be touched by Candy while in reality, Darling was just another stray who was taken in by Andy Warhol and given a taste of joy. Settling for easy sentimentality throughout. We see the way reveals how Warhol made ghosts of all his superstars.
Director Rasin’s approach is even-handed and unsentimental, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the weird extremes of this movie star infatuation. The film is skillfully edited, and Chloe Sevigny recites passages from Candy’s diaries with tenderness and grace. An impressive number of insiders (Woodlawn, Waters, Paul Morrissey (who directed Darling in “Flesh” and “Women in Revolt”), Warhol Factory regulars Gerard Malanga and Taylor Mead, and writer Fran Lebowitz) share reminiscences and the film recreates a slice of the cultural history of the ’60s while also telling us something about the fatal addiction of fame.