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Candy Darling: A haunting documentary reveals the most beautiful, and tragic, of Andy Warhol's superstars

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Andy And Candy
Tim Boxer/Getty Images

Beautiful Darling, the haunting new documentary about the Andy Warhol superstar and pioneering drag-queen transsexual Candy Darling, includes a detail that may not seem to be that big a deal, but that began to astonish me the more I thought about it. It’s that Candy, by the early 1970s, after she’d already become a famous fixture on the downtown scene, was still impoverished, crashing on people’s couches, eating a can of beans for dinner, and — the movie strongly suggests — turning tricks to survive. Basically, she was living the desperate, scraping-through-each-day existence of just about any anonymous New York drag queen.

On the surface, of course, this makes total sense. Warhol, who was notoriously cheap, didn’t pay his actors very much, let alone his hangers-on. (The “pay” was the privilege of getting to sit around the Factory.) The Warhol productions that Candy appeared in, like Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971), marked the launch of Warhol’s underground-crossover phase as a tinpot hipster movie mogul, but they weren’t exactly art-house hits that played for months on the Upper East Side. They were outrĂ© curiosities, and so, in her way, was Candy. So why would I expect that she might have had a little more money?

Because one thing she truly did achieve was a kind of fame, even if it was driven by a touch of infamy. And it’s shocking, from the vantage of our own rabidly consumerist fame-whore culture, to imagine a time in New York City when celebrity, as much as it was sought after and craved, could possibly buy you nothing. As Beautiful Darling describes it, Candy, almost always accompanied by Warhol, attended a lot of very wealthy dinner parties (she would eat the leftovers the next day), and in the fabled back room of Max’s Kansas City, which was basically the first place that someone had the brilliant — and hypocritical — idea of placing a velvet rope in front of a punk scene, people would show up just to gawk at her, and she would show up to be gawked at. A perfect narcissistic symbiosis. I guess I’m saying that Candy, in her highly possessed and glittery guttersnipe way, spent her whole short life trying to make herself into a brand, and she succeeded — from virtually the moment that Lou Reed immortalized her in the Velvet Underground’s luminous ballad “Candy Says.” She paved the way for everyone from Divine to RuPaul, but it was Candy Darling’s fate (unlike Warhol’s) to be a slave to the fame culture before it got inexorably joined to the money culture.

And so she became what, on some level, she always was: a lost soul. But what a ghostly and trashy-visionary and magnetic one! Beautiful Darling, directed by James Rasin, features fascinating interviews with people like John Waters and Paul Morrissey and Fran Lebowitz and Michael J. Pollard and Gerard Malanga and Holly Woodlawn, and it’s full of incredible footage of Candy as she mingles with the immortal (“She has an aura,” observed Truman Capote) and, mostly, as she does what she did best: showed up and preened. An ethereal pretend goddess, she was the ultimate passive exhibitionist. Her extraordinary face, pale with make-up, made her one of the only transsexuals who could truly “pass,” and a lifetime of obsession went into the creation of that face.

When Candy, born in 1944, was growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, as a boy named James L. Slattery, drunk on movie magazines and the dreams of transformation they fed in him, his principal figure of worship was Kim Novak, and you can see echoes of Novak in Candy’s look, and Liz Taylor too (and also, weirdly, Uma Thurman and Diane Sawyer). But when she talks, in her faux-aristocratic stage whisper, that voice is pure Jackie O, with maybe a hint of Marilyn. Fran Lebowitz tartly observes that no woman was ever so womanly all the time, but that was Candy’s angel-baby space-cadet appeal, and she fooled a lot of men with it. In essence, she was acting all day and all night, and she was just driven enough as an actress to land a shot at commercial legitimacy when she got herself cast as the trampy temptress in the 1972 Off Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings.

Candy Darling was really the first person to implant the drag queen into pop culture. (I’m not counting farcical showbiz drag, like Milton Berle or Some Like It Hot.) She was part of the first wave of transsexuals to take hormones (she never had “the operation”), and her arresting look set the stage, in the ’70s, for performers like Divine and Craig Russell, just as the Warhol films pointed the way to the renegade comedies of John Waters. And drag culture has been edging into the mainstream ever since. By the early ’90s, when Paris Is Burning galvanized art houses, drag was ready for its first crossover superstar, and that was RuPaul, who you’d think would have been destined to be a two-minute I Love the ’90s segment for his 1993 novelty hit “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Except that RuPaul, of course, has gone on and on — and if you ever watch his gonzo reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which makes The Real Housewives of New Jersey look like a Laura Bush gardenia party, you see the legacy of Candy Darling: men who’ve embraced their inner freak to become some of the wittiest/bitchiest entertainers on the planet.

Candy, however, had a softer bitch-vamp style. She wore her femininity, and her sadness, like a diaphanous white-blonde nimbus. As the resident glam queen of the Factory, she was an outsider who became an insider, but as Beautiful Darling incisively captures, her tragedy began when Warhol, who had taken her under his wing, lost interest in her. They first met when he saw her in a 1967 underground burlesque written by fellow drag performer Jackie Curtis (the show co-starred a very young Robert De Niro, who played six roles), and for the next few years, Candy and Warhol were joined at the vinyl hip. But when Women in Revolt, Warhol’s satire of the then-novel feminist movement, failed to gain traction, he decided to go a different route. We learn in Beautiful Darling that he thought “chicks with d—s” had become last year’s novelty, and he wasn’t interested in furthering her movie career. So he froze her out — a shocking rejection, even if you know of Warhol’s legendary reptilian coldness.

Then she got cancer. It was as a result of the hormones she ingested (mostly estrogen), and it took her very quickly. Beautiful Darling made me understand the lyrics of “Candy Says,” which the film employs with heartbreaking poignance (“Candy saaays,/I’ve come to hate my body,/And all that it requires in this world”), more deeply than I ever had. The movie was produced by Jeremiah Newton, who was Candy’s long-time partner, and he describes how, when she got sick, it destroyed her, but it also gave her the role of a lifetime. She’d grown up watching Susan Hayward sob-sister movies, and now, dying young (she was just short of 30), she played it to the hilt, even posing for a last, cadaverous glamour shot, entitled Candy Darling on her Deathbed, by the photographer Peter Hujar, an image that’s become iconic. (It’s the cover of Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album I Am a Bird Now.) It may be no exaggeration to say that, in death, Candy Darling most fully became the movie-star-in-her-own-mind she’d always wanted to be. For a time, she ruled the downtown scene as a “superstar,” and she was a great actress, but in a special way. The one role she was ever truly made for was playing herself.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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