In the documentary Beautiful Darling (2013) Julie Newmar said of Candy Darling that she had a Marilyn Monroe quality about herself. Newmar assumed that Candy could have been a star if those in power allowed it to happen, because the camera so obviously loved her in an Old Hollywood kind of way. Darling grew up idolizing those starlets of the past, and created a fantasy image for herself out of the likes of Joan Bennett and Kim Novak. She was especially taken with Novak’s screen presence and womanhood and wanted to grow up to be like the actress. When she was only a child she wrote to Kim Novak and she responded. Darling was so moved by the gesture that she kept that letter with her for her entire life. Knowing how trans woman operate, being one myself, this letter was likely reassuring for Darling when she was only a child, and in some ways reaffirmed her belief in her own womanhood. Darling wanted nothing more than to be a cis woman, but more than that she wanted to be a fixture of Hollywood and glamour and to be considered beautiful and timeless in the way that her heroes were.
When I was a teenager I wanted to be like Candy Darling. She was beautiful in the ways that I wanted to be beautiful and her glamour made it seem like my own idea of womanhood was attainable. For myself, Candy Darling was messianic to some degree, because she was so achingly gorgeous, had all these rock songs written about her by men like Lou Reed; men who had a thing or two for trans women, and then she’d die before her image could fade. When Candy Darling was nearing her death, much of which was contributed to black-market hormones; a path that I also undertook for a time, she had Peter Hujer photograph her. They are these stunning black and white images with a skeletal, but still striking young woman, framed around these funeral lilies. Even in the end, she wanted to look her best. This is a defiant image, one where Darling still has control of how she’d be perceived for all time. With this image, she is allowing herself to die in the vision that she created, and have that be the sustaining viewpoint in which one must view Candy Darling. She is stating with this last photograph that whatever pain she was in after they found tumors in her stomach was worth it, because for a brief moment her star shone brightly, exactly as she wanted it to be. But this is not a triumphant image either, because it is complicated by her death, the limitations imposed upon her by an industry that wasn’t ready for a starlet like Darling, and the woeful inadequacies of a medical community that still saw women like her as freaks. I internalized all of that knowledge as a teenager, and because I charted my own path through transition, I felt like I had a sister in arms with Candy Darling. She was my north star, and even though her life and career were short, her impact on my community was enormous.
“Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body,
and all that it requires,
in this world”
–The Velvet Underground, “Candy Says”, 1969
Whenever folks bring up Candy Darling’s life and career they will often gravitate to her work with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Darling considered Warhol to be her own Louis B. Mayer, and that he’d protect her career, and make sure she was catered to, but Warhol never cared about her to that extent. Warhol thought transsexuals would be good for his own transgressive pop art-style, but not to the point of actually taking care of Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn while they were alive. Morrissey’s Women in Revolt (1971) is the strongest of these filmic examples, and while the intention was to take a pot-shot at a growing feminist movement by casting trans women as “real” women, who had liberation on their mind, the film has oddly taken on a feminist context of its own, with Darling, Curtis and Woodlawn all wrangling the film away from Morrissey and Warhol with their anarchic energy, and Darling’s sheer star-power. Darling made a cameo in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), that same year, and she and Jane Fonda, became fast friends. Darling and Fonda were potentially going to star in a picture of Warhol’s that would have eviscerated Hollywood called Blonde on a Bum Trip, but nothing ever came of it beyond scattered ideas and rough plotting built around the murder of those Darling deemed glamorous, like Fonda. Darling’s best role also came in 1971 in Mervyn Nelson’s Some of My Best Friends Are (1971), and in this film Darling’s status as a trans woman, her acting abilities, and the fragility of her own glamorous creation of self, intersect with one another in a way that none of her other film roles ever did.
Some of My Best Friends Are is a Christmas film, with all the lonely souls of the gay and lesbian community convening at a bar called the Blue Jay, because they have nowhere else to go. Over the course of the evening patrons wander in, and all of them are looking for connection on an otherwise sad evening. The Blue Jay is all they’ve got, and like everyone else at Christmas, they want to be with their family that evening, and for those patrons, the queers at the bar are that family. This is an ensemble film and Nelson’s camera roves around the crowded bar and club eavesdropping on conversations, hook-ups and the outright desperation of all these bodies looking for solace. This is post-Stonewall, but the barriers in place that prevented queer people from living openly and freely are still very much in place. It’s necessary to remember the context of being gay or trans in the early 1970s when looking at a film like this one. In the early 70s you could be jailed for cross-dressing (it was called “female impersonation”), or dancing with someone of the same sex, and being jailed was sometimes the best case scenario for trans women who were caught, because it wasn’t like they would actually convict someone of murdering a “freak”. Candy Darling comes into this film with all that baggage, and she plays a young woman named Karen, who sits alone at the bar, staring off into space, because even in the LGBT community she is still marginalized.
Much of what I love about Candy Darling’s performance as Karen is the honesty in which she carries herself. Usually with Darling there is always a layer or two of performance sprouting forth, before you could get to the real girl underneath, but because she is playing a woman who doesn’t have her entire look together she’s this raw-nerve that lives on the edge of passing as cis or not. Additionally, because she’s in a bar that is occupied mostly by gay men, Karen’s own sense of self is buried underneath this casual transphobia that even she engages with, because she can’t quite tell herself she’s a woman. She’s more comfortable with gay men, because there’s some part of herself, that considers that label to be more appropriate, and this internalized transphobia, and disbelief is easily read in her face. Karen spends the vast majority of her time in this movie drinking fruity girly drinks on the farthest end of the bar, and when the camera finds its way over to her she’s often looking down, and there’s a great deal of emotional volume in Darling’s lonely, wayward eyes. Karen’s not having a good evening, and she’s so preoccupied with how she looks and how she’s perceived that she’s often running to the bathroom to add powder to her face or applying a new coat of lipstick at the bar in-between drinks. The burden of what she thinks a woman should look and act like is such an unmovable weight for Karen, and Darling understands this completely, because her own limitations of body, and her need to present herself as a starlet, made her exhausted. You could always tell by looking into Candy Darling’s eyes that she was tired, and weary, and in the movies there’s nothing more beautiful or sad than a broken wing on a delicate angel.
There are a lot of moving parts and plot mechanics in Some of My Best Friends Are, but Darling’s Karen is the only character who is given the chance to have an internal monologue about herself. In a particularly striking scene, a drunk hustler approaches Karen and asks her if she wants to dance. The hustler is looking to hook up with any woman he can, because he’s crumbling under his own internalized homophobia about his own queerness, and he’s so stoned that Karen seems like a good option. He calls Karen beautiful, and suddenly, this wall of frustration and bubbling sadness lifts for her, and she starts repeating to herself in that internal monologue that if he thought she was beautiful then she must be a woman. During this monologue the director chooses to light everything in a hazy glow and Karen morphs into a fantasy version of herself, and she now, looks much like Candy Darling in day to day life. In the fantasy Karen’s hair is bleached blonde and white like ash and flows around her in these deep, curving locks, and she’s wearing a beautiful orange gown that hugs her body in all the right ways. Even the rock music in the club shifts into something more elegant, and here, in this scene we see something close to gender euphoria for Karen, but the jarring cut back to reality is harsh when the hustler grabs Karen by the ass, and that beautiful moment fades. She’s surrounded by all these gay men, and she becomes frantic about her appearance and the look on Darling’s face screams “what if he finds out?”, which is surely something she experienced in day to day life before, and that reality colours her performance in a way that her collaborations with Andy Warhol never did. With Warhol, there was always an act, and a layer of irony keeping the authenticity from rising to the surface, but that isn’t the case here. When the hustler then reaches his hand up Karen’s dress her world falls apart. He rips her wig off and beats her.
The loss of Karen’s wig is a symbolic death, because without her hair she has no cover for her own identity. For a trans woman like Darling, who built her entire image on being glamorous, this is a gigantic risk. In this moment she is allowing herself to be seen without the dress and make-up that would code her as feminine. As a trans woman, this is not something I could have ever imagined allowing myself to do, considering the fact that early on in my transition I wouldn’t even allow anyone to take pictures of me, but Darling sheds everything in this scene, and all that is left is an essence of being. Karen hides away in the men’s restroom for the longest time, and there’s this pall of silence hanging over the Blue Jay, as they wait for her to come out, and when she does, she is battered, and her identity as Karen is hard to discover on her body and in her dress. She has had her womanhood and her gender robbed from her, and there is no life behind Darling’s eyes or in the way she chooses to move her body in this scene. She is almost like a wounded animal trying to find a corner of the room to lay down and die. She finds her way back to the farthest end of the bar, where a man talks to her gently, but Karen’s gone. Darling’s own worst fears must have informed this performance, because there is no distance between her emotions and her performance. It may have even been borderline dangerous for her to mentally take this on, given her identity, but there is an honesty here, that is all too rare in movies about trans people. Her worst, most agonizing reality has come true, and she sits there with this man, who insists on talking, and she has no shield whatsoever. Later that night she will have to walk home, all alone, in her body, with its worst realities visible in her appearance. Darling allows herself to take on this burden, and the choices of her performance are a question to viewers: “can you still see Karen?”. The film doesn’t suggest any easy answers or possibilities to that question, but the fact that it wants you to ask yourself that question is significant in understanding the humanity of trans women. With Darling’s choices as an actress, this is a proposition where not only does her gender identity need to be comforted in its barest essence, but of caring for someone in their worst moment.
The Blue Jay is like an island for those patrons who need it most. They can cling onto that sense of community and security that they find with one another and at the end of the night many don’t ever want to leave. Some refer to it as a curtain coming up, which metaphorically suggests this real world, and this truer one of fantasy and fulfillment, but for Karen there’s no difference. She drifts at sea without home, and without people. The last image we see of her in this film is one where she trudges away into the night, with only the shadows to keep her company. She’s still looking for her safe harbor.
“What do you think I’d see? If I could walk away from me?”
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