“People who I interviewed said she was the most genuine person they had ever met” director James Rasin told me in an interview about Candy Darling, the transgendered actress who died in 1974 and is the subject of his engrossing documentary Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar. He added he “I thought was weird because she’s a person who is a complete construct, everything is intentionally, layer upon layer, an artifice but becomes someone so completely genuine.”
That is one of the central themes and ironies that runs through Rasin’s fascinating film, which played at the Seattle International Film Festival this year. Candy Darling was one of the Warhol superstars featured in the Lou Reed song “Walk on the Wild Side” (Reed’s band, The Velvet Underground, also had a song about her called “Candy Says”) where Reed sings in the second verse “Candy came from out on the Island, in the backroom she was everybody’s darling; she never lost a head, even when she was giving head”. While not exactly the most positive description one could hope for, Rasin’s documentary is far more kind and thorough.
Born James Slattery in the forties sometime (the actual date of Candy’s birth is the source of some debate but is most likely in 1944), Candy desired to be a glamorous film star in the tradition of Kim Novak. One of the ironies is that other than Warhol, no one really broke out and became a superstar on that level from The Factory scene. When I asked Rasin about that, he said “it is odd that there were so many people in that circle but no one really broke out of that. Maybe The Velvet Underground or Edie Sedgwick, but she never really did anything on her own outside of the Factory and she died very young.” One example he did give was Holly Woodlawn, another transgendered Warhol superstar who was said to have been considered for an Academy Award for her part in the Warhol film Trash. Rasin summarized that “it was very great to be in the Factory scene because it was seen as a stepping stone, and Andy was a theoretically a launching pad and he did give people a much larger stage, so it is a big break, but where you go from there isn’t easy.”
What makes the film so compelling is a lot of rare audio recordings that primarily came from Candy’s close friend and roommate Jeremiah Newton, who loved Candy dearly and started conducting audio interviews with people around the Factory shortly after Candy died. One person he interviewed was Valerie Solanis, who was immortalized in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol because, well, she did. It was a wealth of information that he had saved for almost thirty years before allowing someone to use it for a film. Rasin said he met Newton at a book party at the Chelsea Hotel about twenty years ago and became friends with him. He said “Jeremiah was always supportive and liked what I did. We established a pretty tight bond, so when it was time for him to do something with this stuff and entrust someone with Candy’s legacy, all of this stuff he had been clinging on to and protecting for so long, he felt he could trust me with the material.”
Newton provided a lot of the material and was also reluctantly a figure in the film, which turns out to be essential. “Originally, he didn’t want to be in the movie, it wasn’t my idea to have him in the movie, but at some point I realized that he was an interesting character and his relationship with her was so different and unique that we could really learn about Candy from his perspective in some ways but also learn about him and their relationship and bring it out of this fossilized past. It also opened up different themes in the movie about friendships and loyalty and the passage of time, youth as opposed to getting older,” Rasin said.
Newton, who is listed as a producer on the film, was responsible for much of the material used in the film. Rasin also noted that Newton “knew they were going to be important and he took a lot of time to do that (conduct interviews), it was part of his own grieving process. He was thinking of doing a book, sort of like an oral history like the book Edie. He had a lot of her stuff. The mother had given him a lot of Candy’s belongings. We went back to get the rest and she had destroyed them. He had a lot of the actual journals.” He didn’t have all of Candy’s diaries, though, and Rasin said “some of the most beautiful diary entries he had read into a tape recorder when he was at Candy’s house at Massapequa. He found a diary there and read it into the tape recorder but he didn’t take the diary and it ended up getting destroyed by Candy’s mother. That was in there and so was his own audio diaries.” There was still a lot of material to sort through, though, as Rasin said “He just had boxes and boxes of stuff, everything from ephemera and some old video tapes that he didn’t even know what they were; we sent them out to New Jersey to get them restored and see what they were. That was that the footage of Candy with Tennessee Williams. It was a real treasure trove.”
Not all of the material came from Newton’s collection, though, and Rasin said most people were quite willing to let him use it. “People were very, very generous with their material. Some of the things came from Anton Perich, who said no problem; the Warhol Museum was very helpful with the material they had. Except for Paul Morrissey, we didn’t have any problems.” Morrissey directed a lot of Warhol’s films.
The documentary also features Chloe Sevigny reading from Candy’s diaries and Patton Oswalt providing the voices of both Andy Warhol and Truman Capote in a conversation. On Sevigny, Rasin told me “she’s very much New York and downtown New York. In a lot of ways, I thinks he’s the spiritual heir to Candy. She’s not a transgender or anything, obviously, but as someone at the nexus of art, film, fashion and downtown New York, she’s the one. One of the last things we did was approach her to do that. She then e-mailed me and said ‘I heard you were doing this film and I’m really interested; I’ve always loved Candy Darling and I cherished my copies of her diaries’. She was so great to work with and was so generous with her time and talent. I can’t say how much I appreciate how much she did for the movie and for Candy.”
The film is a short and quick 86 minutes but it’s obvious from talking to Rasin that there was a lot of things he wanted to include but couldn’t for the sake of time. He said ” You have to respect the medium of filmmaking, for how you structure it and how you tell a story. There’s not room for everything. A lot of the interviewees have really interesting things to say but a lot of the time, those things have to get cut out. They always say tighter is better.” A second later, he added that a film is “not a scrapbook where you’re just throwing in great stuff.”