#225) Portrait of Jason (1967)

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#225) Portrait of Jason (1967)

OR “Carrying the Torch Song”

Directed by Shirley Clarke

Class of 2015

A modern trailer of the film’s restored print

The Plot: Filmed over the course of one 12-hour night in Shirley Clarke’s penthouse at the Hotel Chelsea, “Portrait of Jason” is an extended interview with Jason Holliday, a black, openly gay hustler and would-be performer. With drink and joint in hand, Jason recounts his life, personal struggles, romantic past, showbiz dreams, and everything in between. As the night turns into morning, Jason becomes more revealing, and the off-screen assistance from Shirley Clarke and actor Carl Lee gets a bit hostile.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the first LGBT films widely accepted by general audiences” (and by “general” they mean New York film festival attendees). The write-up also describes the film’s production and later restoration.

But Does It Really?: “Portrait of Jason” has been earning its indie film street cred thanks to its recent restoration, and for the most part it is deserving. If you have the patience to watch a movie that is just one man talking for two hours, it pays off. Jason Holliday can be engaging, and the backdrop he paints is a pivotal one for both black and gay history. It’s also fascinating to watch him peel away more layers as the night wears on. The film gets a pass on its historical merit, but I will recommend you do a little research before watching “Portrait of Jason”. Read up on Jason himself, Shirley Clarke, and the circumstances that led to this film to give you more context and (hopefully) more entertainment value. (See “Other Notes” below for a good starting point)

Shout Outs: Among the films Jason references in his nightclub act are NFR entries “Gone with the Wind” and “Carmen Jones”. He also quotes the “Bar None” line from “Gilda”. Honorable Mention: Jason sings “The Music That Makes Me Dance”, a song from the stage version of “Funny Girl” that didn’t make it to the film.

Everybody Gets One: Very little is known about Jason Holliday’s early life, other than he was born Aaron Payne and met Shirley Clarke through her partner Carl Lee, who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts alongside Holliday. Jason and Shirley had not seen each other in a while, when a chance meeting on the streets of New York led to Clarke choosing Jason as her next subject. We’ll see more of Shirley Clarke and Carl Lee in their earlier film, “The Cool World”.

Wow, That’s Dated: All kinds of hip ‘60s slang from Jason like “cats” and “flunkie” and “hang-up”.

Seriously, Oscars?: No LA release for “Jason”, so it wasn’t eligible for the Oscars that year. Can you imagine the 1967 Academy voting for a film with an openly gay black lead? They were still warming up to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, baby steps please.

Other notes

  • If you want to know anything (and I mean anything) about the making of this film, look no further than this press release for the film’s 2013 restoration. It even comes with a handy glossary of all the slang Jason uses.
  • It took me a while to get accustomed to the film’s use of going out of focus for transitions. I was convinced it was the crew’s first time handling the equipment, which I suspect was one of the many ways Shirley Clarke tried to make this seem like discarded footage.
  • Jason spent some time in San Francisco, and it’s a treat to get brief recollections of the city from 50-plus years ago. He mentions Aquatic Park, which is still a lovely, quiet spot in San Francisco, and one of the few that isn’t swarming with hipsters or techies.
  • Jason is very candid about his homosexuality on camera. Pretty ballsy for the pre-Stonewall Riots era.
  • Jason seems pleased with being recorded, stating; “This is a picture I can save forever.” The NFR had the same idea, apparently.
  • Jesus, that is some strong weed. He gets incredibly stoned in about three minutes. Pass that around, man.
  • Jason has no problem saying “fuck”, “cunt” and “twat” multiple times, but tiptoes around directly mentioning his genitalia, referring to the area only as “it”.
  • The Mae West/Victor McLaglen film Jason is thinking of is 1936’s “Klondike Annie”. Mae’s “peel me a grape” line is from “I’m No Angel”.
  • Don’t think I didn’t catch you reversing the film to elongate that pause, Shirley! The smoke going back into the joint is the giveaway.
  • Are there any other NFR entries that mention “golden showers”? I can only think of this and “Pinocchio”.
  • Who were Shirley Clarke’s downstairs neighbors during all of this? I don’t know why but I hope it was William S. Burroughs. Or Eloise.
  • Rare is the documentary where one of the filmmakers is outwardly antagonistic towards the subject. Carl grilling Jason about a time he was rude to Shirley is up there with Michael Moore’s awkward Charlton Heston interview in “Bowling for Columbine”.
  • Overall this film reminded me of all the great, candid late night conversations I’ve had while drunk and sleep deprived. Good times.
  • Among those who helped fund this film’s restoration are director/choreographer Jo Andres, and her husband, that one guy. You know, the guy who’s in everything.

Legacy

  • After the success of “Portrait of Jason” in the New York film festival circuit, Jason Holliday…stayed pretty much where he was. Nothing life-changing happened to Jason due to this film, and he continued to languish in obscurity up to his death in 1998.
  • The original print was deemed lost until it showed up at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in 2013. This lead to a thorough restoration from UCLA.
  • The making of “Portrait of Jason” is fictionalized in the 2015 film “Jason and Shirley”. I think it was filmed on my dad’s camcorder from the ‘90s.

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