Today’s cinema adventure: Beautiful Darling, a 2010 documentary feature focusing on the life of pioneering transgendered actress and Warhol “superstar” Candy Darling, co-produced by her longtime friend and roommate, Jeremiah Newton, and featuring archival and newly-conducted interviews with numerous of her famous and not-so-famous contemporaries and colleagues. First premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010, it has since been shown at dozens of similar events around the world, as well receiving special screenings at several prestigious art galleries and enjoying extended commercial runs in major metropolitan cities across the U.S.
Written and directed by James Rasin, the film frames its examination of Darling- who began life in Queens as James Lawrence Slattery- through Newton, whose close relationship with the pop subculture icon gives him unique insight into her personality and her story. As he prepares to have her cremated remains buried- along with those of his own mother- nearly 40 years after her death, he reminisces about her and shares his extensive taped interviews with such figures as Tennessee Williams, Valerie Solanas, Jackie Curtis, and Darling’s own estranged mother, conducted at the time of her passing in an effort both to come to terms with his grief and to create an archive documenting her personal history and relationships. Combining this material with contemporary interview footage of former friends and associates (Paul Morrissey, Fran Lebowitz, Holly Woodlawn, Julie Newmar, Bob Colacello, Gerard Malanga, and many others) and excerpts from Darling’s personal diary (read by actress Chloë Sevigny), as well as a wealth of photos, both personal and professional, and film clips from her storied career, Beautiful Darling constructs a portrait of its subject as a brave and determined individual who pursued a personal dream against the societal norms and expectations of the era and became a counterculture icon and alternative role model as a result. It also goes past the campy, glitzy surface of her persona and attempts to show us the very real person behind it, allowing us to feel a connection to her as a human being and bringing home the bittersweet story of a person whose hard-won success was marginalized and yielded little in terms of personal reward, and whose premature death from cancer at the age of 29 prevented her from living to see the gradual change that has led to greater acceptance of transgendered individuals and might have brought her greater recognition within the mainstream.
Rasin’s reverence for his subject is clear, as is the adoration of her former companion, Newton, as he lovingly shares his memories and the personal effects he has cherished from their time together; all the rest offer their individual perspectives on Darling, some more charitable than others, but mostly with fond appreciation and affection. Of course, a multitude of interpretations and attitudes emerge regarding her motives, her character, her sexuality, her talent- but these stand out in contrast to the private voice of Darling herself, which reveals a smart, savvy, self-aware person, fully aware of her role in the circus that surrounded her and- most poignantly- increasingly worn out and disillusioned from the continual struggle to embody the glamorous movie star fantasy she had committed her life to making into a reality. The ultimate impossibility of achieving that goal only to serves to make her considerable accomplishments all the more triumphant, and her refusal to give it up- even as she lay on her deathbed posing for a final glamour photo- inspires us and moves us with unexpected emotional resonance.
There are moments throughout Beautiful Darling that touch us with an immediate sense of humanity- the numerous clips of Candy in performance reveal the spark that elevated her above the level of just another drag act, the juxtaposition of early childhood photos with the various reminiscences from her mother and other figures from her former life as a boy give us a glimpse of her monumental struggle to find her identity, and Newton’s tender concern surrounding the arrangements for her impending burial allow us to share his sense of closure over his belated final farewell to his friend. It is the power of these elements that make the film a superb documentary; there are few revelations here regarding the historical events of her life or her associations, though there may be some surprises for those viewers unfamiliar with her career. The usual dominant themes, recurring in any examination of the time and place in which Candy enjoyed her heyday, are present here (the extreme, drug-saturated party atmosphere, the callous fickleness of Andy Warhol, the peculiar blend of degrading squalor and ostentatious glamor), and the archival footage and photos give us a titillating glimpse of the legendary settings in which pop-culture history was made (Warhol’s Factory, the back room at Max’s Kansas City, the streets of Greenwich Village); but what sticks with us, when the film is done, is the sense of Candy as a person, a bridging of the gap between her extreme and unique experience and our own, probably more mundane lives. We are left with a feeling of respect for her bravery, and empathy for her deep longing to simply be herself; it’s a struggle with which we can all relate- gay or straight, male or female, conservative or liberal- and one which ultimately defines our lives, whether we decide to participate in it or not.
It is this universality that makes Beautiful Darling a powerful film, though it also succeeds in entertaining and informing us, and offers us the opportunity to become familiar with its charming and beautiful subject. By appealing to that part in all of us that identifies with Candy’s inner yearning, Rasin’s movie challenges us to confront not only our own issues of identity, but our assumptions and prejudices about sexuality and gender as well. Though this is not overtly a film about the evolution cultural attitudes towards transgendered individuals, it gives us dark hints about the very real danger a person like Candy Darling faced in mid-20th-Century America, and invites us to compare our contemporary level of tolerance with that of her day. Certainly there has been progress, but Beautiful Darling begs the question: how far have we really come in our acceptance? We have yet to see a mainstream media star who is transgendered, Divine and RuPaul (cross-dressers both- not transsexuals) notwithstanding. Perhaps that day will come, eventually, and when it does, Candy Darling will finally take her place as the true pioneer that she was.