Sunday, November 8th, 2015

Portrait of Jason

In 1967 Oscar nominated filmmaker Shirley Clarke ensconced herself in an apartment in N.Y.’s Chelsea Hotel on the evening of Dec. 3, 1966 and let her camera roll for the next 12 hours. Her subject was a much-larger-than-life articulate African/American man who, drink and cigarette always in hand, seems to never stop laughing. The very first thing he says is, “My name is Jason Holliday ” twice, and then he laughs again and adds “My name is Aaron Payne.”  He immediately leads into an explanation of this contradiction, and it sets the pace for what is an hilarious stream of his outrageous anecdotes and stories of his very colorful and somewhat confusing life.
Holliday is quite the charmer and never hesitates to volunteer rather salacious stories about his own life, and many of the people he has worked for.  He was officially a houseboy for a series of wealthy old women in San Francisco, but makes no bones about the fact that he really was a hustler of both men and women.  Promptly occasionally by Clarke off camera, Holliday ‘performs’ his reminiscing mimicking many of his more bizarre employers, before going into his impersonations of his favorite camp movie stars such as Mae West.  Now back in N.Y. he is desperate to become an actor, and is working on a night club act. 

Overly confident and self-assured with his quick wit, his humor is highly infectious as he trots out one bon mot after another. “I’ve been sexy all my life that I haven’t had time to do anything else” he chimes.  And “I go out of my way to unglue people I just don’t like”. Plus his tip for getting through each day was to ensure he had his stash of “sparkle plenty pills”.

He is hysterically funny but as the evening wears on and his non-stop drinking dramatically starts to take effect, Holliday’s sunny mood starts to change and he gets melancholic and maudlin, and eventually even ending in tears at one point.  He tells Robert who is the apartment but not on camera, that he loves him but this seems to exasperate everyone who is there for the filming.  The cameraman Carl Lee, who is also Shirley Clarke’s boyfriend is getting quite frazzled now that Holliday’s mood has become quite belligerent, and we hear Clarke finally say “I think we’ve all had enough” and calls out, “the end” again and again.

Holliday was a creation of the more sexually liberated period of time, and in an era when Warhol and his Factory promoted a whole slew of eccentric and colorful artists and performers whose flagrant lifestyles challenged society’s long-held concepts or morality and conformity. There had always been people as outrageous as Holliday on the fringes and what Clarke’s movie served to do was start making Holliday, and others, so much more visible to a wider public.

When the documentary was premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1967 the reactions were as extreme as Holliday’s moods on the screen.  Film heavyweights such as John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman raved it about it at the same time that the influential critic Pauline Kael announced that it was too indulgent and that she loathed it.  The film had after all, preceded the groundbreaking ‘Boys in The Band’ the first ‘big’ American gay movie by three years, and even that never included a African/American gay man.

Viewing it now almost 50 years later as it is re-released after being so lovingly restored,  it is nigh on impossible not to be swept up by Holliday’s unquenchable zest for his extraordinary life, although as he ‘crashes’ at the end, we are reminded that it all came at quite a heavy price.

Highly recommended.



Posted by queerguru  at  15:58


Genres:  classic, documentary

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