Movies
4:20 pm
Tue June 25, 2013

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

Originally published on Tue June 25, 2013 6:05 pm

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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

"Portrait of Jason" was a remarkable film when it came out in 1967. Its portrait of a black, gay man was a first. And the film also challenged the notion of what a documentary could be. "Portrait of Jason" shocked audiences when it was first released. Now, a newly-restored version is playing in theaters and it is still surprising today.

Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio has this report. A note: This story contains language that may offend some listeners.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: He's got a round, affable face and large, round, black glasses, smartly dressed in a blazer and button-up shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

JASON HOLIDAY: My name is Jason Holiday. My name is Jason Holiday.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLIDAY: My name is Aaron Payne.

CARL LEE: What do you mean Aaron Payne?

HOLIDAY: Aaron Payne, that was my given name given name.

MOVSHOVITZ: He looks straight into the camera talking, singing, smoking and drinking, just him for 90 minutes.

George Chauncey, chair of the history department at Yale University and the author of "Gay New York," puts it succinctly.

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: 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.

JEFFREY FRIEDMAN: It's really impossible to imagine what it felt like 45 years ago when this film came out.

MOVSHOVITZ: Jeffrey Friedman co-directed the 1995 documentary "The Celluloid Closet."

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

MOVSHOVITZ: 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 had watched "Portrait of Jason."

FRIEDMAN: 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. And to me that's a milestone in gay filmmaking and in gay history.

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

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

MOVSHOVITZ: Like the way he coped when he worked as a houseboy for a patronizing white woman who was his boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

HOLIDAY: So she said, Jason, I never really much liked niggers you know. And you're the first one I ever really cared for.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLIDAY: And I said, oh, that's very sweet of you. I said, well, then I should have this position a long time.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLIDAY: Oh, and I go back in the kitchen and say, I wish she'd drop dead.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLIDAY: You know? And then the next minute: Jason, you'll put on your white coat and away you go, you know.

MOVSHOVITZ: 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 for homosexual activity. But Jeffrey Friedman, whose most recent film is a fictional account of "Deep Throat" star Linda Lovelace, says the performances in the film ring true.

FRIEDMAN: He's a storyteller. He's a raconteur. He's great at it. 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.

MOVSHOVITZ: Beyond the personal story 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 Holiday's, manipulate their subject from behind the camera. But neither Friedman nor George Chauncey believe that's a bad thing.

CHAUNCEY: Both Shirley Clarke and especially Carl Lee are really egging Jason on again and again, sometimes pretty ruthlessly. 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 going to 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 the way they are shaping what Jason is doing here. And 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

LEE: What did you tell those lies for? Why did you do that to me? Rotten queen.

HOLIDAY: Oh, I couldn't have been that low. Oh, I didn't. Ooh, no.

LEE: Just 'cause I wouldn't lend you a few lousy dollars?

HOLIDAY: Oh, that's where it's at.

LEE: You had to pull your usual evil...

MOVSHOVITZ: Still, Jeffrey Friedman says that "Portrait of Jason" is both an important time capsule and a living work of art.

FRIEDMAN: Any film that pushes the boundaries of what a film is matters. It's important. It makes us look at all films in a new way, not just that film. After seeing "Portrait of Jason," I don't think one would ever look at an interview film in the same way.

MOVSHOVITZ: For historian George Chauncey, the film makes an entirely contemporary statement.

CHAUNCEY: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")

HOLIDAY: It only hurts when you think of it. And if you're real, you'll think of it a long, long time. That's for sure. Those are the dues.

MOVSHOVITZ: Jason Holiday died in 1998. He left behind, in a way, the nightclub performance he'd always wanted to do.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.