August 1, 2019
1 Hr., 22 Mins.
andy Darling, among the most famous of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” was something of a nexus between old Hollywood-style glamour and New Hollywood rebellion. Growing up, she idolized classic-era bombshells like Jean Harlow and especially Kim Novak. When she was old enough, she modeled herself to appear like a descendent of them. She had white-blonde hair and porcelain-white skin. She wore feature-
accentuating makeup; she breathed every word. Yet she was as much of a throwback as a new kind of star. After coming to New York City in her 20s and embracing her gender identity — she grew up, as discussed in the documentary, a lonely child raised in a dysfunctional and abusive home in Forest Hills, Queens — she headlined avant-garde Warhol movies in spades. She was briefly a muse for the playwright Tennessee Williams. She acted as the inspiration for two Velvet Underground songs. And she was among the first trans actresses to see positive recognition in the United States. Her demise, unfortunately, came nearly as quickly as her unconventional rise. She succumbed to cancer in 1974.
In Beautiful Darling (2010), a documentary by James Rasin, Darling's life and career are compassionately memorialized. The movie is guided by its subject's onetime best friend, Jeremiah Newton, who works as an additional emotional center. (When he’s not telling stories about her, several scenes involve his continued efforts to get Darling’s ashes buried at Cherry Hill.) The film has been made with care; it especially does a good job of showing what Darling’s brief notoriety meant on a cultural level at the time of her ascent, and how tragic Darling’s life was underneath her star persona. Through her diaries, which are redolently read aloud by Chloë Sevigny, we hear of the struggles she endured: her difficulty merely getting meals consistently; her conflicting feelings about her “artificiality,” which was at once something she was prideful of and at odds with. Her loneliness was all-consuming. “I can’t go swimming, can’t visit relatives, can’t get a job, can’t have a boyfriend,” she wrote toward the end of her life. “I see so much of life that I can’t have. I’m living in a veritable prison.”
It’s conveyed that many people who supported her often didn't with total genuineness. Warhol, as was the case with the majority of his superstars, eventually “dumped” her. Underlined is that he viewed her, along with superstars like Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, as a “chick with a dick,” a pejorative at odds with archival footage in the movie in which Warhol corrects someone when they try to equate drag queens and trans women. Writer Fran Lebowitz, who was friends with Darling for most of her adult life, speaks of her with grotesque TERF rhetoric. Was there anyone in Darling’s life, besides Newton, who loved her for her, without cynical scrutiny, without making something of a spectacle of her?
Beautiful Darling, though certainly poignant, falters because it doesn't totally grapple with this idea. Through the emphasis on Newton Rasin seems to be attempting to show the lasting effect Darling had on people. But scenes with him are indirect and short, as if the director was trying to avoid uncovering hurt. The movie has other unwitting faults. How dangerous it was to be a trans woman living in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s is characterized with a touch of romanticism that feels off — as if it was a fashionable sort of risk-taking rather than something profoundly dangerous and scary. More often the talking heads speak of Darling in a way that suggests nobody really knew her — something that would complement the idea of tragic loneliness if Rasin more thoroughly probed what many people didn’t know about Darling, through her diaries and through spending more time with Newton.
Still, the movie achieves what I surmise it set out to do. It paints a sympathetic, deeply felt picture of a magnetic, tortured personality. That her mystique is retained is either a virtue or a setback, depending on your outlook. B