Candy Darling, the transexual bombshell featured in several Andy Warhol movies, two Velvet Underground songs and one Tennessee Williams play, inhabited the precise fantasy she created for herself. That’s argument put forth by director James Rasin in “Beautiful Darling,” a straightforward biographical survey of the Warhol superstar’s unique appeal, which only faded with her premature death from lymphoma at the age of 29. With a mixture of talking heads and diary entries, Rasin tracks Darling from her early childhood as James Slattery in Queens to her presence at the center of New York counterculture in the late sixties and early seventies. Among Darling’s admirers, Slattery finds a general consensus that she lived the dream and never woke up.
As a framing device, Slattery turns to devout Darling pal Jeremiah Newton, who still lives in the shadow of her legacy. Now the portly, middle-aged executor of her estate, Newton appears throughout the movie making plans to bury Darling’s ashes several decades after her death. This particular mission never significantly connects with the focus on Darling’s life, although it does emphasize her lasting effect on those close to her. As noted by interviewee Fran Leibowitz, Darling never experienced girlhood, so her entire femininity was defined by the few years she spent as an adult. Those who knew her as such encountered the entire flowering of her being.
Since Darling’s glamorous pose was inspired by classic Hollywood stardom, her dual identity fit nicely with Warhol’s penchant for iconographic deconstruction. Memories of Darling in the movie create the perception that she allowed herself to become a living Warhol creation, embodying her public persona in private as well. “I’m not a genuine woman,” she writes in one of several personal letters read on the soundtrack by Chloe Sevigny. “But I’m not interested in genuineness.”
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Slattery speaks to a wide range of Darling experts, from John Waters to Warhol manager Paul Morrissey, who directed her in “Women in Revolt.” While they acutely discuss Darling’s cultural value and professional aspirations, neither they nor Newton can sufficiently pull back the veil on her private life. Nobody comments on her dating excursions or goes into detail about how fame affected her family life. In that regard, “Beautiful Darling” not only explains the appeal of its subject; it actively contributes to her ongoing mystique. “People were more into image than reality,” a former Darling friend says of her era. If nothing else, “Beautiful Darling” accurately shows how that image has remained potent over the years.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at the Berlin Film Festival and New Directors/New Films, “Beautiful Darling” is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Friday, but should find its core audience on DVD or VOD, whenever it reaches those outlets.
criticWIRE grade: B