What do you think I’d see
If I could walk away from me?
– “Candy Says”, Velvet Underground
Is transphobia Hollywood’s last acceptable prejudice?
Sympathetic depictions like Boys Don’t Cry or Transamerica are far outnumbered by mainstream films in which a transgender character appears at best as a punchline, or as a prop to be rejected by the male protagonist, thus affirming his heterosexual virility. There are numerous examples but the vile How to Lose Friends & Alienate People sticks in the mind.
And we’re only talking characters here; actual transgender performers are entirely absent from the multiplex. So it was particularly refreshing, and unexpectedly moving, to see Candy Darling’s short life so sensitively handled in the documentary Beautiful Darling, which received its world premiere yesterday at the Berlinale.
Candy, as you will of course know from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, came from out on the (Long) Island. Born James Slattery in 1944, her twinned, indivisible desires were to present as a woman and to be a movie star. The former she achieved through hormones and hard work, the latter by appearing in Andy Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt. After Warhol realised there was more money in portraits of the Shah’s wife than in shaky films about sexual outlaws, Candy was left behind. Undeterred, she appeared in off-Broadway productions ranging from amphetamine-fuelled musicals to Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings. However in 1974, aged just 29, Candy Darling died of leukaemia.
I approached this movie with reservations. The neurotic, narcissistic circle of soi-disant superstars who made up Warhol’s Factory in the late 1960s and early 70s are hardly strangers to either feature film or documentary makers of late. Do we really need another movie full of pretty, insecure young people strung out on speed and self-absorption?
It’s to first-time director James Rasin’s credit, then, that his subject emerges not as a hollow Warholian satellite but as a figure of flesh and blood. It’s not that the movie forgoes the mix of archival clips and talking heads usual for this type of documentary (though with a lot of previously unseen footage and interviewees like the wonderful Fran Lebowitz and John Waters, it doesn’t disappoint on either score). What adds depth and heart to the movie is the presence of Candy’s close friend Jeremiah Newton, who stayed by her after the Factory crowd had moved on. The movie is both a portrayal and an apotheosis of a commemorative project which he began shortly after Candy’s death. Some of the most revealing moments in the film come from interviews a grieving Newton taped with everyone he could find who was connected with her, from her mother to Tennessee Williams. Though his pain remains vivid to this day, it’s hard to imagine Candy could have received a better cinematic memorial.
In the Q&A afterwards, Rasin wouldn’t be drawn on how he imagined Candy turning out if her life hadn’t been cut so cruelly short, so I’ll have a go. I can imagine her heading to Europe in the late 1970s, making some art house movies (a little more successfully than Joe Dallesandro) and returning in modest triumph to the US in the 1990s, where she would by now be a grande dame with a slightly awry facelift but serenity intact, still doing small parts in big movies and big parts in small movies and never turning down documentary makers’ requests to talk about the Factory.