(SPOILERS) There’s no way anyone could get away with making it today. I’ll wager that’s the immediate reaction of anyone seeing Candy for the first time. Which, much as I’m adverse to outrage culture, is probably a positive. There’s something inherently suspect about satirising a subject through embracing it wholeheartedly, as this adaptation of the 1958 novel’s trawl through a pornographic America rather bears out. It’s tantamount to suggesting the oeuvre of Eli Roth is actually a commentary on violence. Nevertheless, while Candy isn’t a good movie, attempting as it does to filter its satirical subjects through a Confessions of a Window Cleaner-style level of perviness, it can boast a selection of memorable scenes and occasionally inspired cameos.
I should begin by stressing it would be unfair to extend my assessment of Candy the movie to Candy the novel, written by Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider and er Casino Royale, and Barbarella) and Mason Hoffenberg under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton. I have not read it. By all accounts, it has many fans. Not least the FBI, investigating it for depraved content (J Edgar was big on depravity) but coming up short: “Candy, for all its sexual descriptions and foul language, is primarily a satirical parody of the pornographic books which currently flood our newsstands. Whatever erotic impact or prurient appeal it has is thoroughly diluted by the utter absurdity and improbability of the situations described”. Southern’s son referred to it as a “pornosophic satire”. The novel was banned in France, and it only saw the light of day in the US four years before it was turned into a movie.
Wiki would have you believe the tome’s pretensions to depth are somewhat illusory, quoting Hoffenberg scoffing at notions of a satire on Candide: “…it’s as if you vomit in the gutter and everybody starts saying it’s the greatest new art form…” However, while Hoffenberg’s co-writer may just have been puffing the literary credentials up, Southern did indeed sell it in said manner to his French publisher: “… the story I have in mind is in the tradition of Candide, with a contemporary setting, the protagonist an attractive American girl, Candy, an only child of a father of whose love she was never quite sure…”
The New York Times has proved an enduring supporter, even claiming in 2018 that “Candy works in the era of #MeToo because it so coyly subverts the male gaze”. But it also, in 1964, referred to the novel as “an ironic legerdemain in which the pornographers snigger at the reader, instead of vice versa”. Implying that the undiscerning reader may not quite get what it is that’s titillating them. Possibly fair comment. After all, the title character was referred to by Playboy as “a kind of sexual pinball machine” which is just the kind of edifying description that sells you on the knife-edge such works wish to walk. Candy has also been described as a “Guerilla war on prudery”, itself a somewhat facile target, and compared to the Marquis de Sade (as a positive): “While the tone isn’t at all dark like Sade’s book, the story does suggest that world order is such that the weak and naïve will repeatedly be exploited by the strong and amoral”.
And one might certainly extend that assessment to the movie, for all that it tends to embrace the masturbatory element of its title character’s adventures. Come to think of it, in much the same way as Southern’s other female adventurer of the same year, Barbarella. Candy is irresistible to every male she encounters, such that every male she encounters is, to a great or lesser extent, overtly or covertly, a predator in waiting. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay, having scored big time the previous year with the perfectly judged The Graduate (losing to In the Heat of the Night). It would have been reasonable to see him as ideal, having navigated that screenplay’s shrewd satire. Albeit some, notably Skidoo’s Doran William Cannon, suggested this amounted to little more than transposing the novel verbatim. Nevertheless, there are so many variables in adapting between mediums, as Catch-22, Henry’s later collaboration with Mike Nichols, evidenced (I feel it’s underrated, but it’s undeniably not all it could have been). We’ll never know how Henry’s unexpurgated vision for Candy might have turned out, had it benefited from a director with a semblance of acumen.
Christian Marquand was foremost a French movie actor – he was Doctor Renaud in Flight of the Phoenix, and appears in the French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now Redux – one with a sole prior directing credit, Les Grand Chemins. How was it he came aboard Candy? Southern tells that the original plan was for Frank Perry to direct for UA (given Perry went on to make The Swimmer, he would probably have been perfect). This version was pencilled in with Hayley Mills starring. Hayley’s dad (you may have heard of him) nixed this. It sounds like the resulting train wreck was Southern’s fault, since after that version fell apart, his pal Marquand, “certainly competent enough to direct at the time” (ahem) persuaded him to grant a two-week option in order to put a deal together. Marquand snared his pal Marlon Brando, and from there Richard Burton. And then he decided Swedish Ewa Aulin would be the perfect all-American girl. At which point, Southern lost faith: “The film version of Candy is proof positive of everything rotten you’ve ever heard about a major studio production. They are absolutely compelled to botch everything original to the extent that it is no longer even vaguely recognisable”.
Southern goes on to give Henry short shrift, which may or may not be warranted, but it’s entirely clear Marquand hadn’t a clue. You can see this kind of thing throughout Hollywood’s colourful history, but there’s a particular strain of overblown, star-heavy disasters during the late ’60s. There’s often bags of potential involved, but no one with any acumen actually cranking the engine (step forward the same year’s Duffy, and the previous year’s Casino Royale, to which Southern contributed). In Candy’s case, the proceedings are at least energetic in places, usually thanks to whichever star – Burton, James Coburn, Brando – is being trusted with whichever scene, but “freewheeling” is usually a kind way of saying something is directionless. And yet, there’s something fascinating about these near-forgotten, all-star comic-hued disasters; however much they may fail to come together, there are points where you’re sure to witness something unique, be that uniqueness sublime or risible.
Imagine YouTube star Poppy cavorting provocatively through a Benny Hill sketch and you have something approximating Aulin’s adventures as Candy. Both appear to have descended from space, and both adopt an unnatural, clueless little-girl voice. As is observed at one point, Candy’s “IQ is probably not… genius level”; she is essentially there as a cypher, to be objectified and perved over by the lusty male (as Pauline Kael put it “…she’s a born dupe whose innocence serves as an aphrodisiac”). The problem with this in a movie is that the lusty male director is essentially doing the same thing, and telegraphing this intent to the audience. The movie’s message is that no facet of American life is free from core debased impulses and that most merely wear wholesomeness as a mask. Be it family – incestuous interest is shown not just from Candy’s uncle but also her father – medicine (Southern also aimed at the medical establishment in his first novel Flash and Filigree), the military, the police, religion, stardom or the media (money itself seems curiously absent).
Charlie: I’ll give you three seconds to throw down those weapons and come out of the Steinway.
A number of these encounters are plain forgettable or puerile, including the mob, a rapacious hunchback (Charles Aznavour) interrupted by the arrival of the police, and night club full of drag queens. Walter Matthau is Brigadier General Smight, who has been aboard a plane for six years and doesn’t like Albanians. Rather like Peter Falk in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (“Were they Albanians…? They looked like Albanians to me”). The scene falls flat. Ringo Starr, who may not have had the best taste but was undoubtedly the best actor out of The Beatles – of course, some would say they were all good actors, portraying The Beatles, Faul especially – makes for a more convincing Mexican than Chuck Heston did before him, if not quite “a credit to Mexicans everywhere”. There’s an attempt to gender-swap satirise Emmanuel raping Candy as his proud family accuse her of despoiling his innocence, but it lands about as well as you might expect.
There’s also John Gomez Astin as Candy’s oedipally-inclined – and in the final scene, expressed – father TM and her Groucho-styled shameless uncle Jack. Astin delivers the latter effectively, but if Southern’s point is that sexual corruption begins and ends with the family unit… well he may have something there, although it’s notable that TM earlier resists his impulses, and it’s only after he has a transhumanist plug inserted into the back of his head that he has no reticence and is “free”.
MacPhisto: The poem I just recited to you was composed in a hospital in Burma as I lay close to death, having been savagely beaten by a hoard of outraged Belgian tourists.
As hit-and-miss as their passages are, the trio of star cameos all have their rewards. Richard Burton as “one of the best-known poets of the twentieth century” MacPhisto (Dylan Thomas, essentially) is a hoot, grandiosely holding forth to a rapt teen audience. One of whom in particular he has his eye on (“Candy. Beautiful name. It has the spirit, the sound of the Old Testament”).
I gobbled up the mountains
Ate the sky
And drank the sea
Until I was the universe
And the universe was me.
Much of MacPhisto’s dialogue is very funny, and Burton delivers it with exactly the right pomp (of his chauffeur and associate Zero, played by Sugar Ray Robinson, he advises that one day in the Congo he saw “An unfortunate native being attacked by a bush python. The man was already half digested when I ran to him, took him by the shoulders and tore him from the jaws of this slavering beast and destroyed the animal with one stab of my ball point pen”: Candy observes that she saw the same movie on TV last week). We last see him having his way with a mannequin in order to sate “My huge, my great need”.
Dr Krankeit: Watch what you’re doing! You’re a brain surgeon, not a gynaecologist!
Coburn, on something of a counter-culture picture roll at the time – not with a great hit rate, it has to be said – is also good value as Dr Abraham Krankheit, operating on Candy’s injured father to an audience of “New York’s wealthiest, most respected and er thoroughly depraved citizens”. He’s brazenly full of himself and absent any beside matter as he gleefully spatters blood all over the operating “theatre”, warning that Candy’s father’s may wind up with a “mental capacity reduced to that of a rather mature cucumber”. The scene has the flippancy of a Monty Python sketch, if never remotely as sure-footed.
Dr Krankeit: You must remember that, scientifically speaking, the only difference between life and death is that death lasts a lot longer.
It’s during this procedure that he inserts a Krankeit Subcutaneous Electro-Degenerator plug into back of pop’s head while offering Pasteurian advice to Candy that her hands “are a playground for germs, microbes, spirochetes and who knows what other kinds of contamination”. As expected, this chemical purity is a mask for less noble concerns. Krankeit systematically brands his initials on all his loyal nurses (one of whom is Anita Pallenberg); where have we heard of that kind of cultish behaviour in recent years? He also advises Candy “You could be on the threshold of one of a dozen highly dangerous diseases. Slip out of your things”. There’s a John Huston cameo, warming up for Chinatown as he chides lewd and disgraceful Candy for being in bed with her uncle and post-operative father: “I majored in abnormal psychology, and I know orgies when I see them”.
Coburn opined of the movie “Unfortunately, the director’s timing was of a European nature. The jokes were always a beat behind. They were often a beat off”. Although, he also admitted “That was also the only film that I made any money on. I had a percentage of the profits…. Of course, that was before the studios set up their Chinese bookkeeping system”. Brando was similarly unimpressed with the results, referring to Candy as “probably the worst movie I ever made” and then piled on even further, musing aloud, “How could you do that to yourself? Haven’t I got any pride left?” Which is quite a statement, given some of the other movies he made (he worked with Michael Winner! And how many of his ’60s movies does anyone even remember, let alone were any good?)
Grindl: And I do not like to brag, but I could converse with vegetables.
Nevertheless, along with Burton, Brando is the best part of Candy as guru Grindl, riding around in the trailer of a semi. Obviously, like all twenty-four-carat gurus, he’s really after the carnal goods. Which he duly gets when Candy climbs aboard and is instructed to shed her material corruptions in order that they may “attain the void” together. Brando is very funny, struggling in and out of the lotus position (on a transparent pexi-glass plinth) while claiming “I could see through seven layers of zinc” and “Space is an illusion. It curves back on itself like an artichoke”. It’s unclear if Grindl is supposed to be an Indian – à la Peter Sellers in The Party – or a blacked-up American masquerading as an Indian. I’d charitably suggest the latter, since his accent leaps all over the place. It also has to be admitted, given the shape he’d be in less than a decade thence, that Marlon is surprisingly trim.
Candy concludes with her strolling through a field full of hippies and co-stars (Krankheit, notably, appears to be administering liberal inoculations) before being taken up into space again. The picture is nicely photographed, owing to one of cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno’s English language excursions (also The Bible: In the Beginning…, All that Jazz, Popeye and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). So there’s that. And it’s eventful. It’s cachet as raunch ensured it was also something of a hit despite itself, making the US Top 20 for the year. Now, Candy’s cachet is merely as a mess, its satirical intent obscured by its tendency to titillate and poke at justifiable taboos rather than effectively translate Southern and Hoffenberg’s themes. But it’s worth seeing nonetheless for Burton, Coburn and Brando.