Dir: James Rasin
Cert: U • US: 82 min • JJay Prods. in assoc. with Sundance Channel • In Theatres
Being immortalised in song is surely a great honour. Candy Darling had that honour twice, thanks to Lou Reed, in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Candy Says’. The former painted her as an oral sex virtuoso. The latter as a sad-eyed creature taking stock of her perceived failures as a ‘woman’.
Being the subject of those songs has kept her luminescent flame alive in the pop-cultural imagination, but such portraiture threatens to reduce her to a cock-sucking desperado and tragic stereotype. James Rasin’s documentary sees that threat off ably and offers up as interviewees a veritable Who’s Who of NYC’s in-outsider crowd of the late sixties and early seventies (Holly Woodlawn, Gerard Malanga, Paul Morrissey, Fran Lebowitz, Jayne County, Pat Hackett), and archival audio interviewees including Candy’s mother and Valerie Solanis. The key figure though, is Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s best friend and inheritor of her volumes of diaries. These, along with previously unseen grainy footage and audio interviews, form the backbone of the film which seeks to piece together the glittery fragments of Candy’s tragically short life: the mid-1960s flight from stultifying Long Island suburban teen hell to the misfit’s Mecca of Manhattan, the development of her persona, the fleeting moment as the shimmering icon of Warhol’s Factory (before the be-wigged pseud got tired of her) and her sad decline and early death. With cruel irony, it was a trajectory fit for a star of Hollywood’s Golden Era, which Candy worshipped but was born too late for.
Born in 1944 and growing up in an era and milieu of suppressed misery where conformity was the highest law, young Jimmy Slattery knew early on that there was no place for him in the letter-sweater fraternity – not that there was any sign he wanted it. He seemed hip to the notion that the world you can create for yourself is brighter than the one you’re offered or assigned to, as we see from early snapshots which show an astoundingly pretty and delicate-featured boy, ebony haired and doe-eyed, lounging on a sunbed, legs outstretched Grable-style, a copy of Modern Screen in his hands, already in retreat to the 1930s and the gilded, gossamer world of the movies.
Slattery began taking trips into the badlands of Manhattan in the early sixties, a place which for all its second-to-none urban credentials was still dangerous for any man fond of satin, tat and Revlon. Agosto Machado, a self-described ‘surviving street queen’ tells us that boys like him and Jimmy would carry their booty around in a bag, gradually cloaking themselves in finery, bit by glittery bit as twilight descended. A single male eyelash stiff with mascara could bring the same reaction from the cops as full-blown transvestism: brutality and arrest. Armed with a new name, Candy Darling found sanctuary in the famed backroom of Max’s Kansas City, a downtown dive and breeding ground for proto-punk and on any given evening resembling an open casting for Warhol’s latest project. It wasn’t long before this new effulgent beauty caught Warhol’s eye, for by the fag-end of that much-mythologized decade, Slattery had become an astonishingly feminine, silvery-pale solarised beauty and a real cheerleader for the glam-fascist look – that distinctive arch-eyebrowed, cupid-bow lipped, golden-ringleted 1960s version of the 1930s later beloved of Bowie, Biba and Bertolucci. But Candy wasn’t merely distinctive in looks. She had, says Newton, ‘a sense of shame’ (or dignity, if you will). Not for her the keening, squawking outrage and speed-fuelled screeching of her contemporaries Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. No. Candy sought to be a lady, in more ways than one.
She was the missing link between heroin heroine Nico and try-hard human skeleton Edie Sedgwick. By 1971, Candy had replaced Edie in Warhol’s affections and was an underground superstar, briefly, gloriously swimming out of the margins into the slipstream of the mainstream with Women in Revolt (1971), which premiered in the spot-lit heart of Tinseltown. That night, by all accounts, Candy was radiant with the glow of a realised dream. But Warhol’s habit of treating his acolytes as if they were cut from the same tin sheet as Campbell’s soup cans meant that Candy’s moment of stardom was fleeting. She appeared in Klute (1971) with Jane Fonda and an adoring Tennessee Williams cast her in his play Small Craft Warnings. But little came in the wake of these accomplishments. Candy was left directionless and the continual poverty and rootlessness of life on the fringes began to snag at her soul. Always though, she prevailed. This determination to be true to herself is testament to her sincerity, but the film doesn’t shy away from the unhappiness it ultimately brought and her diary entries from the early seventies acknowledge the prison that society creates for the hearts and minds of those who don’t fit: she yearned for physical intimacy and for the dignity of paid employment (her diary entries are read in a sugary husk of a voice by Chloe Sevigny), but knew she’d find neither.
The key character in Candy’s story alongside Newton is Fran Leibowitz (surely the Dorothy Parker of the 1970s) who looks as grand as a Salem judge and offers up the wittiest, most laconic insights into Candy’s character, a lost era and a demimonde sadly corroded by commerce. Her observation that to become a woman, Candy would have to have first been a little girl is swiftly followed by Jane County’s assertion that anyone questioning Candy’s true gender is a ‘transphobe’. But as we hear in another extract from Candy’s diary, she wasn’t so sure herself how much a woman she was or could hope to be: she understood that merely assuming ‘the cultural aspects of womanhood’ was hardly enough. (Still, she took armfuls of hormone pills to the end.) The issue of how the gay community treat (and treats) their trans brothers and sisters is mentioned but not developed, nor is the fact that gender and sexuality are different things and not necessarily part of the same fight.
The interviews don’t shy away from some of the more intolerant views of transvestism, and the endless parade of aged beauties and self-celebrated freaks – lipstick bleeding into cracks, visages tight as drums, spreading girths and salt and pepper hair – serve to make us wonder if Candy’s gossamer beauty might have withstood the intervening decades and heavy Virginia Slim habit, had she not been struck down with lymphoma, aged 29 in 1974 (and not before posing that iconic, exquisite still in her hospital bed – she really was glorious in the silver).
Jeremiah Newton – himself an alarmingly cheekboned, raven-haired beauty in early snapshots and footage, now a steely-haired walrus of a man – is clearly as devoted to Candy’s memory as he was to her well-being, nearly four decades ago, and it was he who approached counter-cultural observer Rasin about making this heartfelt peon to her truncated life. So it’s a melancholic coda to discover that when reading from her self-written obituary in an audio recording, Candy mentions Newton’s name somewhere toward the end of her list of those she felt indebted to. Bleaker still is the fact that, when Newton managed to get in touch with Candy’s mother, now in extreme old age and married to a homophobic Hillbilly, she was keen to shed all proof her son ever existed. To this end, she handed over Candy’s ashes to Newton, along with whatever diaries and tapes she didn’t burn. The sadness of this revelation – rejected in death as in life by the one who bore her – is leavened by Newton giving Candy a final resting place and, no doubt, one of pilgrimage for those who cleave to her dictum that ‘Being yourself is the highest form of morality.’ Amen to that.