Film Review: Beautiful Darling

This riveting documentary about one of <i>the </i>legendary triumphant gender illusionists is also a compelling portrait of an endlessly fascinating era.

Candy Darling (1944-74) was the most beautiful of all the so-called Andy Warhol "superstars" of the late 1960s-70s, a delicately featured, porcelain-skinned, platinum-blonde presence with the breathily evanescent voice and presence of Marilyn Monroe and her own self-professed idol, Kim Novak. Darling was also a man, born James L. Slattery on Long Island, New York.

James Rasin's documentary Beautiful Darling charts her singular, star-struck life with formidable insight and impressive detail. He was greatly aided in this endeavor by producer Jeremiah Newton, who met and befriended Darling as a teenager and salvaged her diaries and mementos—including her bodily ashes—after her death, shielding them from her mother, who had remarried a homophobic man and wanted only to conceal the truth about her son.

Chloe Sevigny, in what ironically is her most moving screen performance, reads the words of Darling in the film, and these words often reveal the heartrending loneliness and despair which existed beneath her attention-snatching bravado and glittery Max's Kansas City/underground-movie persona. Darling was an effeminate, love-starved, bullied boy in the suburbs who lived through his fantasies on “Million Dollar Movie” TV showings and glossy film-fan rags.

Escaping to the city, she was discovered, "like Lana Turner," by Warhol, after he saw her in an early avant-garde theatre piece, Glamour, Glory and Gold, with a young Robert De Niro, written by fellow transgendered artist and future Warhol star Jackie Curtis. Warhol cast her in his films Flesh and, memorably, Women in Revolt, a satire of the 1970s feminist movement, in which she is extolled here by interviewees John Waters ("just charming, lovely, a real movie star, and not that ironic”) and her director Paul Morrissey ("enormous identity, distinction, attitude, her tone of voice—a lot of hard work went into what she did"). Indeed, onscreen, Darling possessed a unique combination of the ethereally haughty and street-born grit, her amusingly affected voice intoning lines like "Women's Lib has showed me just who I am and who I can be. If I can't make it with men. I'll make it with women!" with an uncanny mix of irony and inescapable sincerity.

In such moments, you sense that Darling was a far greater, more self-aware actress than even her idol, the ever-somnambulistic Novak, ever was, and Darling also proves herself a delightful mimic here, doing Novak in her most stonily impassioned onscreen moments, in Picnic and as Jeanne Eagels, in which the histrionically limited Novak was bizarrely cast as one of the legendary greatest of them all. Tennessee Williams recognized Darling's talent when he put her in his play Small Craft Warnings, a welcome respite from Warhol's Factory, which, sadly, failed and led to few other professional breaks. Warhol, as was his wont, soon tired of her, as well as his transgendered stars Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, and began casting real women like Sylvia Miles in his films, who ironically often came off as even bigger drag queens than their born-male predecessors.

An impressive array of surviving contemporaneous interviewees, including writers Taylor Meade and Bob Colacello, performers Helen Hanft, Michael J. Pollard and Agosto Machado, photographer Peter Beard and the gutsy Woodlawn, have been assembled, and they, along with Newton's scrupulously compiled audio interviews, conducted over a number of years after Darling's death, comprise a full portrait of the star, with attendant Rashomon-like contradictions. Darling, who blithely claimed to have never paid for anything, is described by some as "the ultimate hustler," who lived from hand to mouth, sleeping on friends' couches. When it comes to the question of her ever selling her body for money, even Newton contradicts himself, saying at one point that she never did that, while an audio interview has him recalling having to wait downstairs in hotel lobbies while she met her johns.

Writer Fran Leibowitz unsurprisingly proves the sharpest of onlookers, recalling the dangers Darling faced in a pre-Stonewall era when you could be arrested for wearing drag, as well as the innate challenges of her gender fantasy: "She could never be a real woman because she was never a little girl, she was a little boy. Real women don't care [about the overt femininity that obsessed Darling]. She was naive. Any man who wants to be a woman—keep your winning hand!" Leibowitz recalls accompanying photographer Peter Hujar when he shot Darling in the hospital, where she was dying of leukemia, and wondering how and why that should even be happening. But when you see this final image of her, utterly exquisite and otherworldly, you realize that, on her death bed, she indeed managed to achieve her lifelong dream of impossibly perfect beauty.