review by: Erin Holmes
Still a little jaded from the disappointment that was 2006’s “Factory Girl” about Edie Sedgwick*, I have been waiting for a decent film to accurately depict what life may have been like for the stars of Andy Warhol. James Rasin’s documentary “Beautiful Darling” OPENS TODAY and not only accomplishes this, but does so with insight, heart, and a fully interesting leading lady: Candy Darling, the Warhol actress formerly known as the teenage boy James “Jimmy” Slattery.
Given the subject matter— a transsexual actress in the avant-garde film world of the late 1960’s, early 70’s— the film follows a fairly standard, expository documentary style, using stunning photographs, intriguing archival footage, and Candy’s diary excerpts read by actress Chloe Sevigny to tell the story of the actress’s rise to a fleeting fame. But the talking-head interviews are where we get the strongest perceptions of the mysterious persona of Candy Darling.
The film’s POV is sympathetic and comes mostly from beloved friend Jeremiah Newton, who has taken it upon himself to preserve her legacy. He is the keeper of her ashes, diary, and all of her belongings that weren’t burned by her embarrassed mother. The film opens and closes with Jeremiah and does a great job of sympathizing with him in his own right, a lost soul and seemingly the only person who Candy fully trusted. We mostly sympathize with Candy herself as we learn about her not-so-glamorous life of crashing on people’s couches and living “hand to mouth.” In fine Warhol fashion, she was eventually tossed aside, from the factory, the film world, and the scene entirely (to many fans’ dismay) shortly before succumbing to illness. Candy Darling died of leukemia in 1974; she was only 29. The hormone pills she took for most of her life are also discussed; Jeremiah refers to the options for pills at the time as “cancerous” and ineffective.
But the subjective interviews with the MANY other characters who knew Candy paint a much broader picture of her brief 29 years of life. They mostly recall Candy as confident and strong, a “powerful and potent” personality. But they disagree about her ideologies and experiences, and these discords are edited together to create a dialogue. For example, a couple interviewees claim that Candy dabbled in prostitution, then it immediately cuts to Jeremiah who rebuts, “No, she didn’t do that, they‘re wrong.” It’s important in these instances to note the backdrops behind the figures who are interviewed– they are set everywhere from backstage dressing rooms to theater seats, from their own homes to diners. Who should we believe?
The film tactfully places a solid black background behind writer Fran Leibowitz, who was very much a part of the Warhol scene at the time and whose words are (as the film portrays) the most objective and truthful. More general interview highlights include (1) the gushings of filmmaker John Waters, who considers Candy Darling the actress and the Warhol film “Women in Revolt” (1971) extremely important to film history, and (2) great archival footage with Tennessee Williams, whose play “Small Craft Warnings” (1972) starred Candy Darling in her first non-Warhol role.
Although people will initially flock to this film mainly to get the look and feel of the era and the factory, “Beautiful Darling” does more than glamorize Warhol’s web of wonder. The story of Candy herself demands the exploration of the dangers and loneliness of gender confusion in the sixties and seventies. She had a difficult upbringing, which she spent mostly hating herself and her classmates and obsessing over fame and movie magazines. But even her future home of New York City had yet to embrace the transsexual culture; female impersonation was still a crime and it was not safe to be out on the streets for many reasons.
Most vivid are Candy’s diary excerpts, which reveal that she was not as confident and sure of herself, her sexuality, or her appearance as the many interviewees paint her to have been. An interesting segment of the film is when people are asked about her relationships– they haven’t a clue who she dated or what her romantic life was like, assuming she kept that private. Her diary entries and written letters reveal she was often alone in hotel rooms and desperately lonely.
Through photographs, archival videos, Candy’s own writings, recent interviews, as well as a great soundtrack, we can find the film’s insightful commentary on fame and identity. For these reasons in addition to that fabulous Andy Warhol footage, “Beautiful Darling” is a film worth seeing.
*And no, Sienna Miller, as a University of Pittsburgh alum I still haven’t forgiven you for calling Warhol’s Pittsburgh home “Shitsburgh” and I’m glad your movie tanked.