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A Revealing '60s 'Portrait,' Opening Eyes In Theaters Again

Jason Holliday, born Aaron Payne, is demanding audiences' attention again in a new theatrical release of Shirley Clarke's <em>Portrait of Jason</em>, restored by Milestone Film and the Academy Film Archive.
Milestone Film
Jason Holliday, born Aaron Payne, is demanding audiences' attention again in a new theatrical release of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason, restored by Milestone Film and the Academy Film Archive.

He's got a round, affable face and large, black, hipster glasses. He's smartly dressed in a blazer and button-up shirt. He looks straight into the camera, talking, singing, smoking and drinking — just him, for upward of 90 minutes.

"It only hurts when you think of it," he says, his normally jaunty voice wobbling on the edge of a break. "And if you're real, you think of it a long, long time, that's for sure. Those are the dues."

"He" is Jason Holliday, born Aaron Payne, and he's the subject — no, the heart — of the film Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke's remarkable 1967 film.

Remarkable it was, and remarkable it remains, in more ways than one. Its unadorned, first-person portrait of a black gay man was a first for films. But it also challenged the notion of what a documentary could be.

"I can't think of any other film that put a gay person in the center and just allowed them to talk about their life before Shirley Clarke's film," says George Chauncey, chairman of the Yale University history department and author of Gay New York.

Now that it's playing in theaters again, in a newly restored version, the film feels in some ways more pioneering than ever.

"It's really impossible to imagine what it felt like 45 years ago, when this film came out," says Jeffrey Friedman, who co-directed The Celluloid Closet, an eye-opening survey of representations of LGBT people in cinema.

"You know, we'd never seen anything like this," Friedman says. "This was before reality television; before we were used to people baring their souls on national TV and on the Internet."

It was 10 years before the landmark documentary Word is Out, which took the stories of 26 gay men and women to theater and television audiences nationwide. The makers of that movie, no surprise, had watched Portrait of Jason.

"It's revolutionary as a film about gay people, because it's a gay person standing in front of a camera and being who he is without apology," Friedman says. "And to me, that's a milestone in gay filmmaking and gay history."

It's important to remember that Jason is not just a gay man, says Yale's Chauncey, but a gay black man.

"He's beaten down by being poor, by living in a racist society, living in a homophobic society," he says. "And so much of what this film shows us is his exploration of what that life has been like — how much he resisted the life he was consigned to. The indignities he's had to experience, and the way he's dealt with them and his strategies for coping with them.

The way he coped with a patronizing white woman he worked for, for instance.

"She said, 'Jason, I never really much liked n- - - -rs, you know. And you're the first one I ever really cared for!' And I said, 'Well, that's very sweet of you.' I said, 'Well, I should have this position a loooong time.' [Laughs.] And I go back in the kitchen and say, 'I wish she'd drop dead.' "

The film looks to be part confession, part drunken rant, but also part performance. In fact, Holliday performed in Greenwich Village before having his cabaret license yanked because of his arrests on charges related to his sexual orientation.

But Friedman, whose most recent film is a documentary about Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, says the performances in the film ring true.

"He's a storyteller. He's a raconteur. He's great at it," Friedman says. "And I don't know any raconteurs that don't embellish their stories. But they all feel like they're coming from a place of real experience and truth."

Then there's the matter of the film itself. Friedman doesn't call it a documentary — in part because of the way filmmaker Shirley Clarke manipulates the images, and in part because of how Clarke and her friend Carl Lee, also a friend of Holliday's, manipulate their subject from behind the camera. Neither Friedman nor Chauncey thinks that's a bad thing, though.

"Both Shirley Clarke and especially Carl Lee are really egging Jason on again and again sometimes pretty ruthlessly," Chauncey says. "But part of the brilliance of this is the style of documentary it is. Heretofore we just had 'voice of God' documentaries where some narrator is gonna tell the story with some illustrative material. Or 'fly on the wall' documentaries, where the filmmaker is there but not really making their presence known.

"And part of the brilliance of this documentary and the honesty of this documentary is that Shirley Clarke lets us hear the voices: her own voice, Carl Lee's voice, and they way they are shaping what Jason is doing here. This of course is always happening in a documentary, but normally that's hidden. And so we are allowed to hear them — and we don't always like them."

Friedman says that when he saw the film the first time, "I was struck by what felt like cruelty on the part of the filmmakers. They berate Holliday; they remind him of uncomfortable experiences; they call him a liar and ply him with booze.

"And as a documentary filmmaker, the relationship between the subject and the filmmakers made me uncomfortable," he confesses.

Still, Portrait of Jason is both an important time capsule and also a living work of art.

"Any film that pushes the boundaries of what a film is matters," Friedman says. "It's important. And it makes us look at film in a new way. After seeing Portrait of Jason, I don't think one would ever look at an interview film in the same way."

For Chauncey, the movie makes an entirely contemporary statement.

"We still live in a world of social inequality, unequal power, in which there are lots of people who are having to put on a mask and perform in front of people who have power over them — and who are incredibly angry about it. And this film gives us a searing portrait of that."

It only hurts when you think of it, he says. And if you're real, you think of it for a long, long time.

Aaron Payne, aka Jason Holiday, died in 1999. The film's distributor has so far found no living relatives, no one who remembers Jason. All that's left is his performance in the movie. In a way, it's the nightclub act he always wanted to do.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howie Movshovitz
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