Friday, March 19, 2010

Last night Owen and I took a walk on the wild side in Waterloo. It's not that difficult to be honest but this was at the National Film Theatre - I refuse to call it the absurd BFI South Bank - to see BEAUTIFUL DARLING, James Rasin's revealing documentary on the Warhol Superstar Candy Darling.

I remember the first time I became aware of Candy.
I had bought John Willis' Screen World at the start of 1975 - it was an American-published annual listing every film that had been released during the year in America - and while browsing through the obituary section at the back I was gobsmacked to see a head & shoulders portrait of a beautiful young blonde actress Candy Darling who had died early in 1974.

Now I knew my filmstars, I bought all the film magazines... how come I had never seen this actress before? Of course my jaw fell open when I read the obit properly and saw that she had been born James Slattery. When one's experience of cross-dressing is based on the obvious bloke-in-a-frock typified by Danny la Rue, the utter femininity captured by Peter Beard's photograph was a revelation.Of course after that I learned that the 'Candy' in Lou Reed's WALK ON THE WILD SIDE was none other than Miss Darling and that, by and large, has been my knowledge of her. So BEAUTIFUL DARLING was quite a revelation in exactly what Candy managed to achieve - and at what cost.

By far the most appealing of the Warhol trans stars, the film charts the early life of James, growing up in the arid normality of Queens and Long Island, caught between a doting mother and an abusive father. Unsurprisingly an escape into the world of 1950's Hollywood led him to a fixation with the Baked Alaska personality of Kim Novak and his role model was set in place, especially after she sent him a heartfelt letter with a signed picture. The template for his look was set...In the film Candy declaims - it would be unfair to call it acting - two speeches of Novak's from PICNIC and JEANNE EAGELS. What I was curious about was how the dark-haired 14 year old Slattery would have reacted to Kim's exceptional performance in Hitchcock's VERTIGO, where her enigmatic and soulful blonde Madeline is revealed to actually have been an invention - especially as her 'real' self is the brunette and streetwise Judy. Reinvention which drives a man to distraction - even if it leads to tragedy.The film certainly tries to provide an in-depth look at the person behind the glamour-on-a-budget persona but ultimately she is a mystery. Differing views are given of her by friends and acquaintances but one suspects that this is viewed through the glow of time and I'm sure that she could be as maddening as any of her colleagues - forever broke, forever on the cadge. Reminiscences are provided by, among many others, Holly Woodlawn, Fran Lebowitz, John Waters, Julie Newmar - WOW!, Paul Morrissey, Jayne County, Helen Hanft, Bob Collacello, Taylor Mead and Pat Hackett.
The film also tells of her relationship with Jeremiah Newton, a friend younger than Candy with no noticeable means of support but who appeared to be more grounded than she was and who seems to have devoted his life since her death to keeping her flame alive. The film follows his arranging for Candy's ashes to finally be interred in a quiet cemetery - along with his mother's ashes and with a space for him too. It sounds vaguely creepy but he appears to be a kind soul and his devotion to his friend is touching. Again, one wonders what the years have allowed to be forgotten.After Candy's death Jeremiah went to see her mother who gave him permission to take away the old diaries and possessions she had saved. With promises that he could come and collect the rest, Jeremiah left with what he could carry. A few weeks later he contacted Candy's mother about another visit - to find she had burnt everything. She had been worried about her homophobic new husband finding out about her Jimmy. It never ends....
Luckily Jeremiah had these diaries as they provide the real voice of Candy among the conflicting views of her. Read by Chloe Sevigny, the excerpts provide a surprisingly perceptive voice to the endless photographs - and make you realise how self-aware Candy was and how even during the manic, busy years when she was a New York face, she was aware of the strange dichotomies that the glamour was hiding.Who knows what the world lost when Candy succumbed to Lymphoma all those years ago? What we do know was lost was the inspiration for a few Lou Reed songs, a fascinating persona that was the inspiration for some great photographs taken by the likes of Beaton, Mapplethorpe and Scavullo and an actress who, according to Julie Newmar - WOW! - had the possibility of being nurtured into being a fine performer given the right director and project - Candy had after all appeared in the 1972 debut production of Tennessee Williams' SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS in New York. Indeed this was only one of several off-Broadway productions she appeared in, such as starring in a Jackie Curtis play in 1968 supported by a 25 year-old Robert de Niro!Oddly not addressed in the film is the conjecture that Candy's illness was exacerbated by the dodgy hormones she had taken for years. There is a passing reference to what she used to take but it is lost in the mix.

Towards the end of the film, the rostrum camera pans up some photos of the teenage Jimmy Slattery taken in a photo booth and in the top one he has drawn a full flip hairdo over his own hair... it's undeniably poignant especially coming so soon after the famous photographs of Candy dying in hospital - playing the role till the end.
If the film gets any sort of distribution I would urge you to see this fascinating and thought-provoking elegy to friendship and the courage and tenacity it takes to be your own special creation.

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