IF JACKIE CURTIS was the most brilliant and mercurial of the drag queens immortalized in Andy Warhol’s films of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Candy Darling was the most moving and devotional. Born James L. Slattery in 1944 to a working-class family and raised in the stultifying conformity of post–World War II Long Island suburbia, Candy discovered her ideal self in the platinum-haired vision of Kim Novak toughing it out in The Eddie Duchin Story (1956). Just as the young Warhol wrote fan letters to Shirley Temple and incorporated her gestures into his blatantly feminized presentation of self, the young Slattery wrote to Novak (who responded with a “personalized” letter that became one of the boy’s most cherished possessions) and fashioned a fantasy life around his desire to become a glamorous Hollywood sex symbol like Kim. (Warhol missed a great opportunity by not remaking Hitchcock’s Vertigo with Candy in Novak’s role, thereby clarifying Hitchcock’s fetishism of women who are not at all what they pretend to be.)
In James Rasin’s tender and intimate documentary, Beautiful Darling (2010), there is a clip from David Bailey’s documentary Bailey on . . . Andy Warhol (1973) in which Warhol tries to parse the difference between “drag queens” and his stars. Drag queens, he opines, “just dress up for eight hours a day. The people we use really think they are girls and stuff, and that’s really different.” According to several sources in Rasin’s documentary, Warhol suggested to Candy that she have a sex-change operation (no one says he went so far as to offer to pay for it, and skinflint that he was, he probably didn’t), but Candy demurred, although she was also said to have regarded Warhol as her Louis B. Mayer (the all-powerful studio head who always knew what was best for his stars or, rather, his wallet). No, Candy preferred to dose herself with the female hormones that very likely caused her death from lymphoma at age twenty-nine.
Beautiful Darling is not a biography of Candy so much a testament to the friendship between Candy and Jeremiah Newton. The movie begins in 2007 with the preparations for the burial of the urn containing Candy’s ashes along with the urn containing the ashes of Newton’s mother in the single grave in which Newton also plans to be buried. Newton obtained Candy’s ashes along with some of her possessions from Candy’s mother. The mother was trying to keep the fact that Candy ever existed a secret from her second husband, who seems to have been even more homophobic than Candy’s actual father.
Rasin looks at Candy largely through Newton’s eyes. They met when Newton was a beautiful gay teenager living in Queens and Candy was looking for a couch to sleep on. Newton says he was afraid to take her home because of what the neighbors would think, but later, when he got a place of his own in Manhattan, it was different. He became her most steadfast friend, throughout her life and beyond. The movie is thus the story of an undying love, and as such, it is immensely affecting and mysterious. The executor of Candy’s estate, Newton coedited the book My Face for the World to See: The Diaries, Letters, and Drawings of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (1997) and is a coproducer of Beautiful Darling. Both works have kept Candy’s image and legend alive in ways that would have pleased her as much as the two events that seem to have been the high points of her short life: going to the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood of Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt (1971), in which she costars with Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, and starring in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings (1972). (Williams insisted on casting her in the lead.)
Beautiful Darling is an inspired clip job—that is to say, the clips themselves are often amazing and they are brilliantly arranged. There are glimpses of Candy on the swing in Curtis’s fabulous La MaMa production of Vain Victory (1971) singing Paul Serrato’s torchy “My Place Tonight,” a song with which she was identified as much as with the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” The music (cuts by Lou Reed, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry) gives the movie a defiant edge, as do some of Candy’s own subtle send-ups of her melodramatic diva image. (The clip from Warhol’s Phoney is choice.) Among the sharpest commentators are Fran Lebowitz, John Waters, Helen Hanft, and the Interview crowd: Pat Hackett, Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont. After Candy died, a grieving Newton recorded audio conversations with everyone who knew her, and bits of these exchanges serve as narrative glue. It is an illustrious cast of downtown characters, most of them long gone.
Rasin’s riskiest move was to choose Chloë Sevigny to read, in voice-over, from Candy’s diaries and the letter she left to be opened after her death. Sevigny makes no attempt to imitate Candy’s vocal delivery, which mixed the breathy tones of Hollywood sex goddesses with the staccato inflections of Viva. (Did Viva model her delivery on Candy’s or vice versa? Or did they have a common source? The movie casts no light on this conundrum, since Viva, a contemporary of Candy in the Warhol scene, seems to be the great unmentionable for Newton and Rasin alike.) Rather, Sevigny sounds exactly like the well-educated, upper-middle-class, East Coast young woman that she, in fact, is. And that alone expands the meaning of what Candy wrote about her uniquely personal transgendered experience of the world. Near the end of the film, we hear Sevigny’s forthright, transparent reading of one of the last entries in Candy’s diary: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” The words boggle the mind and break the heart.
Beautiful Darling opens Friday, April 22 at the IFC Center in New York.