Beautiful Darling,
directed by James Rasin
(Corinth Films, 2012)

In Beautiful Darling, we have a very good documentary about a subject that might not really be worth all of the attention. Candy Darling was an actress who worked in Andy Warhol movies in the early '60s. She was also a self-deluded and self-involved transsexual who wanted only to be the '50s movie star Kim Novak.

She was born male, as James Slattery, in Forest Hills, Queens, and from the first moments of her life wanted to be a girl. She was a cross-dresser in high school -- the film includes the memory of a female classmate who ran into Slattery while waiting for a train into Manhattan and being repulsed because Slattery was dressed in women's clothing. She devoted most of her time to watching old Hollywood movies on television; it was at this time that she developed her fixation on Kim Novak, from whom she received a personal letter when she wrote the actress asking for an autographed picture.

As a completely narcissistic and insecure person, it was inevitable she'd wind up hanging out and working at Andy Warhol's studio, the Factory. He used her in a few movies, paying her $25 per scene, and Slattery, who was by now Candy Darling, thought of herself as Novak and Warhol as Columbia Studios head, Harry Cohn -- Warhol would take care of her, protect her and nurture her career the way Cohn had Novak's.

Jeremiah Newton, who was, it appears, Darling's only genuine friend, describes the time he went to the Factory, knocked on the door, and the people inside, after checking him out through the keyhole, said, "Oh, it's Jeremiah. Let him in." Newton still thinks of that moment as the epitome of cool; being accepted by Warhol's entourage made him feel that he'd arrived, that he was someone. That scene encapsulates the entire trouble with that world: it's high school; it's being invited to sit at the cool kids' table. The fact that these people were adults, some of them, like Warhol middle-aged, makes it all a little creepy. Newton describes all of them going to Max's Kansas City, where some high school friends of his saw him being led into the back room. They tried to follow him in and were turned away. Newton saw that moment as wonderful; he was accepted and they weren't.

For the record, I have been in the back room of Max's Kansas City back in its heyday. It was filled with self-inflated celebrities, their fawning entourages and sycophants wanting something from them. Not a pleasant sight or a pleasant place to be. The fact that Darling wanted only to be in this world says a lot about her right there. One of her proudest moments was when Lou Reed name-checked her in "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." It was all more than a little superficial, empty and narcissistic.

But this was the world that Candy Darling wanted to live in, the world she felt she was entitled to live in. And when Warhol grew bored with her and moved on -- he said he wanted to use real women in his movies -- Darling couldn't take it. She was left with no money, no fame and no friends except for Jeremiah Newton, who gave her a place to live, running money and food, and in general took care of her while she scrambled for work.

He took care of her until her death from lymphoma in 1974. In fact, the framing story of the documentary involves Newton's attempts to get Darling's ashes buried next to his own mother's in the family plot at Cherry Valley, N.Y. Darling shares a tombstone with Newton's mother.

The filmmakers obviously believe Darling was an important talent and a beautiful woman. We are constantly told in the movie how beautiful she was, yet the footage of her does not reveal beauty; what it shows is a desperate attempt to look young and female, an attempt to simulate beauty. Newton describes being with her in the early morning after a night of partying when the makeup is running and he can see the beard beneath it.

Candy Darling was a tragic figure but not for the reasons the filmmakers believe. She was tragic because she had no core identity, only one she tried to invent. She was so busy trying to be Kim Novak that she never took the time to discover who she really was.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

26 January 2013

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