One of the worst things about death, aside from the obvious innate primal grief we feel and the bone-sick reminder that our time has its own expiration date, are the generalizations. A life is such a complex layer cake of history, heartbreak, and stories, so when someone dies, especially someone as one-of-a-kind as Candida Royalle, trying to sum them up with basic labels, like “orphaned ex-porn star,” which appeared in a headline in the New York Post recently, feels like the cheapest move in the world. Johnny Thunders was more than just a junkie, Vincent Van Gogh was more than just mentally ill and Candida Royalle was more than the socially frowned upon labels that have been put upon her.
Royalle was a free spirit who communed with the legendary drag troupe The Cockettes in the 1970’s and then made a splash as a fun, sensuous and curvy presence onscreen in several classic adult films. Even better, though, she completely bucked the tide in the borderline-fascist political climate of the 1980’s and went into film directing, specifically targeting a female audience for cinematic erotica. Before Candida, there were a handful of female directors in erotica, and bless them all, but she was truly the first to put an emphasis on not only courting a mixed gender audience but also in highlighting the woman’s pleasure. This should not be revolutionary because quid pro quo is the best kind of system in any interaction, but it was and still very much is a revolutionary notion.
Candida approached her role in this world like a true cultural revolutionary, which is exactly what she was and forever is. Our culture is still mucked and mired with hang-ups over something that is essential biology, meanwhile all the usual suspects of abuse, hunger, war and Bob Dylan karaoke concerts still thrive on. Candida Royalle was a true feminist, more so than Gloria Steinem and certainly more so than Andrea Dworkin, because not only did she fight the status quo from Day One and never apologized for it, but she did not attack other women while doing so. The real frosting is that she did it all with class, intelligence, and yet, took bigger hits for it. When you’re a true blue game changer, you will get it from both sides. It’s not fair and it is tied to some of the more evolutionary stuck facets of our nature, but until we can evolve our mental opposable thumbs a little better, it is what it is. But Royalle never gave up. She fought for pleasure and the right to utilize it as an element in storytelling and art. (And yes kids, no snickering please and realize that there were adult films that were proper works of cinema once upon a time. Egon Schiele and Picasso used explicit imagery and no one is calling either one a “pornographer”.)
But she didn’t just fight for that. Think about how male dominated mainstream Hollywood’s directors list is. The adult film world has always been a smaller though more colorful microcosm of its bigger and subversively sleazier big brother, so women directors were even more scant in that field. On top of that, along with her peers in brains, beauty and needed brazenness like Veronica Hart, Veronica Vera, Annie Sprinkle and the late Gloria Leonard, she showed anyone with a heart and a brain that you could create in a medium that was working class, occasionally arty and always bucking against what “good girls did” and be smart as hell, expressive and a sheer force of a human. All of these women are my inspirations and knowing that one more of them is no longer on this plane is an incredibly sad thing for all of us still here. But Candida is fine because she has moved on and hopefully, wherever she is, can see that nothing she did was in vain. Every act of love and passion is never, ever in vain. Some seeds take longer than others to bloom but they will take root, one way or another. Thank you, Candida.
For more information on this trailblazer, check out Jill Nelson’s interview with her in the book, Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotica Cinema, 1968-1985 or hear Candida herself on The Rialto Report podcast.
Photo Credits: On the rooftops of San Francisco – Candida Royalle with Lailani (Laurien Dominique) just prior to shooting PIZZA GIRLS in 1978. All photos courtesy of Howie Gordon, aka the ghost of Richard Pacheco, author of HINDSIGHT – True Love and Mischief in the Golden Age of Porn.