STRELLA/A WOMAN'S WAY and BEAUTIFUL DARLING
London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Part of the point of film festivals is to give some sort of airing to films that might otherwise pass unseen. 'Strella' was the subject of much jaw-dropping on the part of the Greek public and some abuse by the Greek Church, and got a cinematic release in France, but does not seem all that likely to get shown in UK cinemas; it is a complex family drama in which extreme events are resolved by good will and the director's light touch. 'Beautiful Darling' is a labour-of-love documentary about a minor figure in the circles surrounding Andy Warhol, an actress who died young of cancer. What, of course, unites these two good films - and perhaps explains the reluctance of distributors to take them on - is that they deal, with a degree of seriousness, with transexuality, not as the punchline of sniggery jokes or as the culminating plot twist of a thriller, or even as the subject of anguished social problem expose, but as a fact about two interesting characters, one of them more or less real...
The Greek film's original title, Strella, combines the heroine's name with a slang word meaning 'crazy'; making her own way on the streets since she ran away from a village to Athens in her early teens, Stella works in a bar as a falsetto Callas impersonator, is a moderately successful call girl and devotes her spare time to renovating an abandoned bordello and helping look after the dying older trans woman who helped her a decade earlier. (One of the strengths of the film is its subplot in which Stella passes on the wisdom of her mentor to the neophyte Alex - this is a film about community as much as individuals. ) She meets, and starts an affair with, the older Yiorgos, an ex-convict; Koutras puts these two through plot twists that slightly take the breath away, and yet he never cheats, never relies on coincidence and always sets his twists up in advance, even if the audience does not spot them coming.
The complexities of their relationship invoke both grand opera and an older Greek world of hubris and tragedy - 'Miss Sophocles and Miss Euripides' as the dying Mary mordantly puts it and yet the closing minutes of the film are gently, pragmatically, comic and sentimental. The swelling strains of Callas singing 'Vissi D'Arte' are replaced with the disco beat of Gloria Gaynor's 'How High the Moon'; sometimes we have to move on from operatic emotion to the gentler power of cheap music.
The fascinating thing about 'Strella' is that it is a totally professional, slickly plotted film, for which co-writer/director Panos Koutras worked, for the most part, with an entirely non- professional cast, whom he coached for the best part of a year. Mina Orfanou, the young trans woman who plays Stella, is both extraordinarily beautiful and an amazingly subtle performer. The long tracking shot that we believe, wrongly, to be the end of the film, in which she walks crying through the streets with Puccini swelling is entirely dependent on her constant shifts of facial expression.
Perhaps the most important thing about Candy Darling was that she too was capable of quiet subtlety, certainly by comparison with her friends Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, with whom she co-starred in Warhol's 'Women in Revolt'. After all, neither Tennessee Williams, who used her in the first production of 'Small Craft Warning' or Werner Schroeder who used her in the dream-like 'Death of Maria Malibran' were casting for scandal or sensation, but because she was both beautiful and stylish. It is perhaps a shame that there is no record of her theatrical work - either the Williams play or the off-Broadway extravaganza in which she starred with the young de Niro. Her quiet dignified death from leukaemia and metastatic tumours was of a piece with her rather wistful career and persona.
Jeremiah Newton was her closest friend and has spent the thirty-six years since her death at 29 documenting her life as well as burying her ashes in his own family plot. 'Beautiful Darling' makes some odd choices - we get disapproving comments from some people who hardly knew her and almost nothing of Holly Woodlawn, apart from Newton one of the few survivors of the Warhol era. It also attributes her death to the hormones she was taking - in the face of medical probability - in order to provide a neat mythic narrative of getting what you want and paying for it. Newton gives us all the facts, and some real sense of Darling's charm and talent; the shape he gives her story sometimes imposes morals where the untidy messiness of life - like that portrayed in 'Strella' - might have been preferable.