“A perfect forgery,” exclaims producer Jeremiah Newton as he alters Candy Darling‘s official death documents to include her chosen name and not simply her birth name. It’s a fitting opening. Beautiful Darling is a study in Darling’s exquisite fraudulence, tracing it back to her youth and following it to her untimely demise. A true paradox according to interviewees in the documentary film, the Andy Warhol associate Candy Darling was both extremely genuine and entirely fake. She was beautiful enough to effortlessly convince many unknowing men of her gender, but she rarely went home with any for fear of being found out. A regular at the parties of the rich, she appeared wealthy yet mostly lived off of gourmet leftovers and crashed on friends’ couches.
We see Darling grewing up as a boy named James Slattery, acutely aware from the age of five that she was different. Over the years, she immersed herself in movie magazines and tried on different names and appearances until she settles into the ever-glamorous persona of Candy Darling as the embodiment of both her transwoman self and her Marilyn Mondroe ambitions. It’s a daring move, as simple cross-dressing was extremely illegal in New York at the time. Yet her undeniable “aura,” as its called in the film, attracts a slew of followers that regularly attend to her needs, including Newton, whose archival footage makes the film possible.
Under the direction of James Rasin, the movie tracks down countless interviews with those who knew Darling, including important players from that scene, audio quotes from Tennessee Williams (who cast Darling in one of his plays), and video of Andy Warhol. They discuss the nature of Darling’s change and the power of her presence, while Chloë Sevigny voices her diary entries. Her time in Warhol’s cabal is the centerpiece of the film, and it’s a fascinating intersection of the posh and the avant-garde. Candy Darling is at once both conservative and outlandish amid that crew; she simply wants to be a throwback Hollywood star, but such a striking reinvention of herself is in practice unprecedented.
Beautiful Darling screens tonight at the Hirshhorn at 8 p.m.