Remembering Candida Royalle
We’ve lost one of the most important women ever to grace either side of a porn camera: Candida Royalle, “the Grace Kelly of porn,” has died after having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago. While being treated for the disease she mostly continued to work, raising funds for and beginning work on a documentary film, While You Were Gone, about her own history as entwined with her mother’s, who disappeared from her life when Candida was a small child.
Candida, whose birth name was Candice Vadala, grew up without her mother but enamored with the performing arts, and after moving to San Francisco from New York as a young woman she performed with the Cockettes and plunged into the alternative world of SF in the 1970s—including becoming a porn starlet in movies such as Femmes de Sade, Fascination, and Hot and Saucy Pizza Girls. Candida was not satisfied making erotic movies primarily for a male audience; she felt they often lacked sensuality and a female perspective, and in the 1980s, back in New York City, she turned her creative attention to making the erotic movies she believed women wanted to see. In 1984 she founded Femme Productions and stepped behind the camera to bring a woman’s gaze to explicit cinema. This didn’t just mean more sensual sex scenes, though she was no great fan of the hardcore genital focus in porn. It also meant much more attention paid to aesthetics—no dirty plaid San Fernando Valley motel sofa for Royalle!—as well as lavishing far greater attention on the emotional lives of the female characters than many male porn directors bothered to do.
Royalle’s first films were collections of shorts, followed by full-length features Christine’s Secret and Three Daughters, but she soon handed the camera to and made room in the director’s chair for her friends in Club 90, the tight-knit support group she shared with fellow porn stars Gloria Leonard, Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Hart, and Veronica Vera. Each of these women made their own film for Femme Productions, and they include some of the most ambitious and moving explicit work ever shot: Annie Sprinkle made an arty paean to Tantra, In Search of the Ultimate Sexual Experience, starring a young Jeanna Fine, while Nina Hartley starred in Shady Madonna, the film Veronica Vera created to spoof Christian hypocrisy about sex. This Star Director’s Series showed the world that more women than just Royalle could make female-focused and couple-friendly erotic movies, and this early work (all made in the 1980s) inspired women making lesbian porn as well as female directors like Tristan Taormino and Jennfer Lyon Bell who started putting their dream films on video two decades later.
Royalle was part of anti-censorship group Feminists for Free Expression, founded in the wake of the so-called “feminist porn wars” in the 1980s, and as art censorship cases continued to rage into the 1990s she made her most ambitious and extraordinary film, Revelations, set in a dystopian, anti-sex society. A decade later she shared the camera again, producing the Femme Chocolat series of films focusing on African-American performers and directors. She spoke widely and was from the very beginning an articulate spokeswoman for her vision, and supported and mentored other women in making erotic movies all along the way.
Gloria Leonard was the first Club 90 member to die, but last year the surviving members of the group reunited—first to accept honorary degrees at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, then as the closing keynote presenters at CatalystCon West (interviewed by our own Jackie Rednour-Bruckman), and finally early this year at CineKink in New York, which presented “A Tribute to Club 90,” with public appearances as well as films from the women’s body of work. According to CineKink founder Lisa Vandever, this was Candida’s last public appearance. Candida died on September 7 at her home in Long Island.
Her website, candidaroyalle.com, is still up, and her blog posts and other information about her projects, including While You Were Gone, can still be seen there.
Candida Royalle will be remembered by her surviving Club 90 sisters, fans and friends at a memorial gathering at The Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco on October 25. For more about this event, which is open to the public, please visit www.sexandculture.org. A New York City memorial is being planned for November or early December.