Several recent documentaries have mined a vein of nostalgia for New York City’s East Village art scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. For example, with its obligatory still photos of the artist chillin’ with a number of as-yet-undiscovered artists (Madonna being one of them), The Radiant Child shed light on Jean Michel Basquiat’s life and career. Iconic NYC fashion photographer Bill Cunningham was also a recent subject in a documentary bearing his name.
And now we have Beautiful Darling , a fascinating doc that explores the too-short life of Candy Darling, a transgender actress best known as a fixture at Andy Warhol’s ultra-hip studio The Factory, as well as her work off Broadway, most notably in a play written by Tennessee Williams. Born James Slattery, much of Darling’s early life is glossed over in Beautiful Darling, save for her obsession with old Hollywood films and actresses like Kim Novak ( Psycho ). By the time Darling reached adulthood and moved to Manhattan, she was ready to start playing a role that felt natural to her—life as a woman, or at least as a female impersonator.
This is good stuff, but not nearly as interesting as how and why this film came to be made: Early on, Jeremiah Newton, one of Darling’s friends, now a bloated melancholic (or playing the part of one) arranges a memorial funeral for his mother (who had died about a decade before) and Darling (who had died about 20 years before). What’s strange about this is that Newton owns most of Darling’s personal effects, including the home movies, personal photos and a diary, all of which are featured in the film (and years ago compiled, by Newton, for a book about Darling). And he’s the producer of Beautiful Darling .
When viewed in this light, Newton buying three burial plots (the third being his own) and arranging for a memorial, all while being filmed for a documentary about Darling, seems a little ostentatious and overly dramatic at best—and completely staged at worst.
That’s not to say that his story (which commingles with Darling’s story) isn’t fascinating. Throughout Beautiful Darling , Newton is portrayed as everything from a sycophant to one of Darling’s lovers. Was this is a love affair that left Newton devastated in the wake of her death from leukemia, or was he a groupie with an opportunistic streak who saw an opportunity to make some money in the promotion of a dead semi-icon while playing the role of a heartbroken former lover?
Newton seems to be enamored with Darling in the same way that Darling was enamored by Kim Novak and other ‘40s film icons. Like Darling, who achieved a modicum of the fame of Novak via her idolization, Newton has also profited and achieved some notoriety because of Darling and her work. Newton had compiled a number of audio interviews with Darling’s friends and family shortly after her death, and we’re privy to much of it.
Director James Rasin seeks out a number of other notables for interviews, including John Waters, Fran Lebowitz and Penny Arcade, another transgender performer who starred with Darling in Women in Revolt . Chloe Sevigny gives voice to Darling’s diary, which is filled with surprisingly smart and insightful prose.
Rasin makes it easy to see why, for a brief time, Darling was the darling of a strange, speed-addled art scene and the subject of Velvet Underground songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” (Candy came from out on the island/In the bathroom she was everyone’s darling) and “Candy Says.” She was smart, articulate and a consummate performer—Rasin’s producer, Newton, isn’t too bad either.