Famished filmgoers, take note: Director James Rasin hopes his new documentary Beautiful Darling— opening April 22 at the IFC Center—is "an exciting dinner conversation." Darling is the latest in a string of docs about a top cog of the Factory, Andy Warhol’s departed avant-garde headquarters at 33 Union Square West. This time it’s Candy Darling, Warhol’s transgendered starlet—born Jimmy Slattery of Massapequa, Long Island—taking center stage. Yet those who think Andy’s gang is well-worn territory will credit Rasin and collaborator Jeremiah Newton for making this coterie fresh again. Memorable interviews emerge from the likes of John Waters, Paul Morrissey and Fran Leibowitz, who here amusingly if controversially suggests that men becoming women may want to "keep their winning hand." Opening Friday at the IFC Center, Darling enhances Candy’s mystique rather than exploiting it; she’s a curiously gorgeous one-woman Rashomon.
"My view of Candy is sublimated by letting those who knew her speak, then letting the audience decide," says Rasin. The 47-year-old director recalls at a young age hearing Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side" on top 40 radio in his native Chicago, and going to the library to read about Darling, the subject of the song. "It was inspiring," says Rasin. "She did not come to New York to be anonymous, and you had to stand out to have the Factory cameras pointed at you."
Newton, meanwhile, proves an unlikely star, and the film’s modest heart and soul. As Candy’s loyal friend and executor of her estate, his burial of Darling’s ashes lends the film a present-day arc that traces back to Newton’s days as a Factory boy himself. Newton had his own apartment by the time he was 15, and Candy moved in with him shortly after their introduction in 1969. "I found a whole cooked chicken under her bed once that had been there for ages," says Newton of his messy housemate. "Once I accidentally threw away a shoe that had belonged to Marilyn Monroe."
Newton depicts Candy as happiest onstage, performing in hammy transcentric musicals at La Mama and Cafe Chino. "Comedy is born of selfdeprecation, giving yourself to an audience," notes Newton. "In that way, Candy was a star who you couldn’t look away from." Darling was also a studied mimic, able to recite the films of Lana Turner and her beloved Kim Novak from memory. Her wit won her the lead in the premiere run of Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings, and the chance to see herself onscreen at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. "She was a great artist, but may not have known it at the time," says Rasin. "Many in the Factory were as outrageous as possible. She was coy, demure and often quiet, which is a great risk among loud people." Indeed, Candy emerges from the film as more contemporary than her cheekier peers, having left something to our collective imagination.
Darling’s lyrical diaries, read as a tender haunting by Chloe Sevigny, take us up to the day before her demise from lymphoma at age 29, when she made herself up to pose for the renowned death bed photograph by Peter Hujar. "I had a dream about her recently," says Newton. "I was in our old apartment, and Candy was complaining about the film. I had to laugh and tell her, ‘You’re dead and you’re still bitching!’ Then I walk out into the subway station, and she’s gone."
Within Darling’s diaries sits a line so loaded with raw intention for each of us that Rasin has opted for it to be a closing note of the film. "You must always be yourself no matter what the price," writes Candy. "It is the highest form of morality." As it turns out, it’s not an easy thing to genuinely be yourself. "Candy had to find out who she was very quickly," says Rasin, "in a concrete way, while for most of us that pursuit is so often abstract."
The romance of Rasin and Newton’s film is its casting of our fair city as an island of lost souls finding strength in one another. "Candy knew she made others laugh," explains Newton, "but never expected that her diaries would today be published and tattooed on people’s bodies, inspiring them to live a better life." If today’s priced-out, sanitized New York is no longer a place for runaways, let this film serve as an elegy. But if there is still hope for reinvention here, Beautiful Darling may prove that seductive siren that cues the beautiful freaks.