The belief that a documentary is only as interesting as its subject is put to the test with the release of every new work of nonfiction to dwell on the life and almost always brief times of one of Andy Warhol’s superstars. Indeed, if Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar, like Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film and Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol before it, teaches us anything, it’s that Warhol’s greatest talent was his disturbing need to surround himself with people who, like himself, had an almost pathological gift for hiding their true feelings. They made their detachment appear chic to the public, and every new documentary about them tries—and almost always fails—to expose the human face behind the only thing Warhol’s silk screens, or his collaborations with Paul Morrissey, ever showed us of their lives: the masks they wore. To be cool, they worked hard at appearing as if they didn’t care, even when they were having sex. But perhaps it’s time we acknowledged that, despite their outré appetites, Warhol’s superstars may have been legitimately boring people.
Candy Darling was among the opportunistic Warhol’s most lucrative acquisitions. What else to call her? Before calling an end of his chicks-with-dicks phase and cruelly tossing her and Holly Woodland and Jackie Curtis aside, Warhol brought Candy, nee James Lawrence Slattery, into his Factory because he saw in her a kindred spirit, and her convincingly feminine appearance and nostalgia for old Hollywood made an indelible impression on the bloodsucking Warhol’s multimedia experiments. Next to Woodlawn, whose performance in Trash was Oscar-bound for a nano second back in 1970 thanks to the concerted will—and good taste—of fellow queer George Cukor, perhaps no other Warhol superstar came closest to flirting with mainstream stardom, having been photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, sung about by Lou Reed, and acted in a well-received play by Tennessee Williams.
Is it success or failure that Beautiful Darling, a conventionally shot mix of taking-head interviews and archival film and audio, is unable to dispel the cloud that still hangs over Candy? A boy who dreamed of being a girl and a Hollywood star, because to live any other way would have meant a nosedive toward oblivion, the Candy that barely comes to life throughout the documentary—through archival film and audio recordings, ruminations by colleagues and friends (including Fran Lebowitz), as well as diary entries read aloud by Chloë Sevigny (who sounds nothing like Candy)—feels like an archetype: just another transgendered person struggling with rejection and finding freedom by flirting with, or toying with the idea of, showbiz success. Beautiful Darline illuminates the transgendered person’s sense of tortured displacement, but Candy herself remains a mystery.
Jeremiah Newton, now an industry liaison at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, once Candy’s closest friend in the world, is somewhat at the center of the film, though not center enough. His struggle to bury his friend’s ashes in Cherry Hill provides the documentary with something of a through line, but Rasin curiously retreats from Newton’s journey at key points, almost as if he were afraid to get too close to him, returning to the man irregularly, usually after some taking head has regurgitated some well-known anecdote about Warhol and the means and ways—and meanness—of the pop artist’s Factory. Maybe Newton wasn’t interesting enough to Rasin, but this much is true: The only time that Beautiful Darling hurts is when Newton appears on screen, recalling some personal story Candy told him about her life or appearing pained because he can’t provide Rasin (and us) with more personal information about Candy’s past (after her death, her mother burned what remained of Candy’s personal belongings for fear that her homophobic second husband would learn the truth about her son’s life).
A more philosophical and visceral director might have built the film completely around Newton’s search, rather than resting occasionally on it like Rasin does here, treating the man’s experience as a reckoning with his own past, poetically evoking Candy’s perpetual state of not-being and allowing her to come a little closer into focus in the process. Instead, Rasin settles for playing tidbits of audio Newton recorded shortly after Candy’s death, of her close friends and associates (like Tennessee Williams) remembering what it was like to be touched by Candy, just another out-there stray who was taken in by Andy Warhol and given a taste of joy. Settling for easy sentimentality throughout, Beautiful Darling in a roundabout way reveals how Warhol made ghosts of all his superstars, unknowable then and unknowable still to us now.