Documentary Review: “Beautiful Darling” takes us on Candy’s “Walk on the Wild Side”

Here’s how a New York Times critic made mention of actress and transgender icon Candy Darling‘s first appearance in a reviewable play, “Glamour, Glory and Gold” on a New York stage.

“Hers was the first female impersonation of a female impersonator that I have ever seen.”

Yes, her transformation, before hormones and before her turn as an Andy Warhol “Superstar,” was that convincing.

“Beautiful Darling” is a documentary remembrance of a transgender icon, a Long Islander born brunette James L. Slattery whose devotion to Hitchcock favorite Kim Novak convinced him that she was born to be a screen siren, a platinum blonde “fantasy” of the old studio system that she named Candy Darling.

“I am not a genuine woman,” she wrote in her diary in the late ’60s. “But I’m not interested in genuineness…I’m interested…in how QUALIFIED I am.”

Lou Reed sang about her in “Walk on the Wild Side.” Warhol put her in “Flesh” and “Women in Revolt,” and yet she died of cancer at 29, almost certainly due to the pills she was taking to repress her born-male hormones.

“Beautiful Darling” is an appreciation, an attempt by those who knew her in her element to place her within the firmament and a lot of comment on how she saw herself via old interviews and diary entries (read by Chloe Sevigny, with Patton Oswalt imitating Andy Warhol and Truman Capote) — all at a time when she might be arrested for merely dressing as a woman in Olde New York.

This celebrated film, the only feature completed by writer-director James Rasin, is worth revisiting in a time of runaway pronouns and ever-shifting acronyms, a reminder of how far the culture has come and how much of this evolution began with the exceptionally feminine and delicate Candy.

She was a person who insisted she was “transsexual, not a transvestite” to her friends, who insisted on being addressed by the proper pronoun right from the start, according to friends.

Fran Lebowitz notes that “she was her own artwork,” an expert — early on — “as a person playing the part of being themselves.”

She first gained notice pre-Warhol, but the artist, “Factory” founder and provocateur identified with her in a flash. “He liked people who had a sense of shame,” one Warhol confidant notes. Like himself.

Lebowitz places Darling at the center of that Manhattan ferment of art, celebrity and queer identity on the cusp of the ’70s, a time when you could enter the “back room” at Max’s Kansas City and find “an entire group of people who would have a tantrum if everyone wasn’t paying attention to THEM.”

At the center of all that, Candy Darling.

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were fascinated by her. Warhol and his film director Paul Morrissey realized the camera loved her. Her films were celebrated in the chic underground press and premiered at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater, her Kim Novack dreams come true.

And yet she was broke the entire time, famous for being famous, crashing on one friend’s sofa after another, paid $25 a scene for improvising her way through Warhol movies, even as she acted her way toward a grand triumph, a starring role in Tennessee Williams’ “Small Craft Warnings.”

It’s a downbeat story, but Rasin never lets it wallow in sadness, even as he frames it in Candy’s longtime companion Jeremiah Newton’s mid-2000s efforts to give her a proper grave, burying her urn and putting a proper tombstone on the spot.

“Darling” paints a vivid picture of the time, with all these hipsters and Hollywood hangers-on (Jane Fonda, Dennis Hopper, et al) seen in old footage mixing with Candy and Andy and the Factory folk.

If it all seems like some far off dream, it kind of was. But if you doubt just how far we’ve come, visit Candy’s Wikipedia page. You can’t find that male birth name (save for mention of her father’s name) there anywhere.

MPA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, profanity

Cast: Candy Darling, Andy Warhol, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Morrissey, Jeremiah Newton, John Waters — and voices of Chloe Sevigny and Patton Oswalt.

Credits: Scripted and directed by James Rasin. A Corinth Films/Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 1:27

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